Moscow’s changes of fortune 2

July 19 2007

But mainly a digression.

Dennis Wheatley’s first published thriller, The Forbidden Territory (1933), was set in early Stalinist Russia: the Russia of the first Five-Year Plan.

Exchange between Simon Aron and the Duke de Richleau:

“‘What’s Leningrad like?’ Simon inquired. ‘As dreary as this place?’

“‘Worse, my friend; it is a dying city. As you may know, that part of Russia was wrested from the Swedes, and the city built by Peter the Great in an attempt to make Russia a maritime power. Since the Upper Baltic is frozen for a considerable portion of the year, that ambition has never been fully realized. Only the fact that it was the seat of Government for so long has maintained the prestige of the city. Now that Moscow is the capital once again, the life-blood has been drawn from Leningrad. These Kommissars are no fools; they know that all the wealth and fertility of Russia lies to the South, and it is here that they are making their great efforts for the future. The ‘Nevsky Prospekt’, the Piccadilly of old St. Petersburg, which used to be such a wonderful sight, is now dreary beyond description; filled with the same crowds that you see here, it is true, but lacking the bustle and vitality of these Moscow streets. Leningrad was stricken mortally on that dark night when Dimitry and Yousopoff pushed the still warm body of Rasputin under the ice of the Neva.’”

For forty years Wheatley was the most famous thriller-writer in England. When the Duke in the same book points to the stars with his whip to show how he knows the way, as he and young Simon Aron ride all night by sleigh through an empty and frozen Siberia, we are in a fairy tale.

Wheatley’s novels are adult fairy tales. They are supposed to be not merely exciting, but wildly exciting.

His historical research is usually of a fairly high order, fantastic as the stories always are. It is hard to imagine, reading this book, that he hadn’t visited Russia. Had he, in fact? He was not in the group of British writers that includes Wells, Maugham, Mackenzie, Ransome, Greene, Fleming, Le Carré – and Toynbee – who were at some point employed in intelligence. But the descriptions are vivid.

In some ways he is the precursor of Fleming. There’s the same interest in luxury (without quite such crude brand-snobbery as you get with Bond), the same sadistic streak. Some passages are deeply unpleasant; I won’t quote it, but see, for example, the description by the Kazakh boy of his grandmother’s torture of (not by!) a Red Army soldier in The Forbidden Territory, which is all the more shocking for being extremely matter-of-fact. On the other hand, these things happened.

The British journalist Paul Johnson wrote a hostile review of Fleming’s Dr No in 1958. He also made some broadcast remarks, which were aired recently on BBC Radio 4 and are now a period piece:

“I picked up a volume called Dr No, which I am told by connoisseurs of his work is not one of his best. It’s certainly a very bad novel indeed. And this struck me as a monstrous piece of work: the crude sadism, the disgusting sex, the very second-rate snobbery. It’s not even the snobbery of a proper snob. It’s the snobbery of an expense account man.”

The Establishment’s resistance of popular culture had another four years to run.

Wheatley is much more varied than Fleming and he covered more genres: not only thrillers, but historical romances and some science fiction – and, of course, there are novels about the occult. Fleming was a better writer. Wheatley was only eleven years older than Fleming, but he seems to reach back far into the nineteenth century – to Dumas. He even wrote a novel called The Prisoner in the Mask. He was obviously influenced by Orczy. I wonder what else he read.

Leaving aside the most lurid and sadistic passages, he was probably no more unpleasant than most writers of his type and generation, with their racisms and sexisms and clubland snobberies; he was less so than Dornford Yates. He is said to have been antisemitic, but the hero in The Forbidden Territory is a wholly sympathetic Jew. He was right-wing, but no Mosleyite.

His books are varied, longish (between 300 and 400 pages usually), and their exoticism and slight weirdness is increased for a UK reader by the fact that the paperback editions were published not by Penguin or Pan (Penguin would not have stooped to this level anyway), but Arrow. He made no claim to literary skill, but there have been far worse writers.

In the same year as The Forbidden Territory appeared, Georges Simenon published Les gens d’en face, later translated (twice: very well by Robert Baldick and less well earlier by Geoffrey Sainsbury) as The Window over the Way: a work of a different literary order, set in Soviet Batum, the Georgian port on the Black Sea.

Wheatley’s historical novels are the Roger Brook series: twelve set in various parts of the world between 1783 and 1815 and published between 1947 and 1974.

In The Shadow of Tyburn Tree, Brook has an affair with Catherine the Great. The publisher’s blurb for The Ravishing of Lady Mary Ware, says: “The description of [Brook’s and Lady Mary’s] participation in Napoleon’s terrible Retreat from Moscow in 1812 has rarely, if ever, been equalled.”


10 Responses to “Moscow’s changes of fortune 2”

  1. Adrian Murdoch Says:

    There is a lovely Wheatley novel – I forget the title – where de Richleau has an affair with the Austrian empress Sissi and inadvertently helps cause WWI.

    Elsewhere, it is impossible not to adore an author who called one of his books The Eunuch of Stamboul.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    You also said in an email: “Baffled that W could ever be called anti-semitic. One of his running heroes is Simon Aaron? Unique of the period and ‘club’ to have an entirely sympathetic Jewish male hero.”

    He is Aron with one a in the book I am talking about – but Richleau is also spelt Reichleau there, so he may have changed the conventions in later ones.

    I took the anti-semitic reference from the Wheatley website, which on the whole gets him right. It says on the Introduction page: “He is in no doubt that blacks and Jews are inferior.” As you say, that doesn’t quite square with Aron. As with WE Johns, Kipling and others, the truth about his racism is complicated.

    The page also says: “His work often slides into the medieval conceit of equating physical disability or disfigurement with evil; whether one-armed, hare-lipped, or cross-eyed, all could mark one out as a potential acolyte of the devil. Therefore, a percentage of Wheatley’s writing is distasteful by modern standards and some of his tirades of breathtaking vulgarity against racial minorities, which would have been quite at home in the pages of Der Stürmer, render these passages unprintable today.”

    A Communist who trails Aron and Richleau in the book I refer to has a glass eye.

    It is a fact also that in Victorian literature, men who were described explicitly as sexually attractive were usually foreign and blackguards. They were not referred to in that way much if they were English. Wheatley, on the other hand, has a strong sense of male physicality and portrays them as sexual beings even when they are heroes.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    I was lazily plagiarising a friend (not Adrian and not something I normally do) in the last paragraph, who replies: “My thesis is that men of the respectable classes who are obviously attractive in an overtly sexual way are foreigners AND/OR blackguards: in Trollope, the two examples of non-foreigners are Burgo Fitzgerald and the Revd Mr Slope: Phineas Finn is on the frontier, as he is semi-anglicised Irish and a half-rascal.”

    In the novel I was talking about the hero is English-Jewish, so also on the frontier, but Wheatley does cross into modern territory in other places.

  4. […] on Simenon in this blog here (in the context of Dennis Wheatley), here (the wonderful opening of a Parisian novel), and here […]

  5. […] of their Mughal predecessors from the maritime site of their own original capital at Calcutta. Moscow, too, possessed sufficient prestige to allow her to wait, as Delhi waited, for more than two […]

  6. davidderrick Says:

    BBC4 documentary about Wheatley:

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Wheatley’s 55 novels, publication dates 1933-74, all by Hutchinson, except one as shown:

    The Forbidden Territory
    January 1933
    Duke de Richleau

    Such Power is Dangerous
    June 1933
    Out of series

    Black August
    January 1934
    Gregory Sallust

    The Fabulous Valley
    August 1934
    Out of series

    The Devil Rides Out
    December 1934
    Duke de Richleau

    The Eunuch of Stamboul
    July 1935
    Out of series

    They Found Atlantis
    January 1936
    Out of series

    October 1936
    Gregory Sallust

    The Secret War
    January 1937
    Out of series

    Uncharted Seas
    January 1938
    Out of series

    The Golden Spaniard
    August 1938
    Duke de Richleau

    The Quest of Julian Day
    January 1939
    Julian Day

    Sixty Days to Live
    August 1939
    Out of series

    The Scarlet Impostor
    January 1940
    Gregory Sallust

    Three Inquisitive People
    February 1940
    Duke de Richleau

    Faked Passports
    June 1940
    Gregory Sallust

    The Black Baroness
    October 1940
    Gregory Sallust

    Strange Conflict
    April 1941
    Duke de Richleau

    The Sword of Fate
    September 1941
    Julian Day

    ‘V’ for Vengeance
    March 1942
    Gregory Sallust

    The Man Who Missed the War
    November 1945
    Out of series

    Codeword – Golden Fleece
    May 1946
    Duke de Richleau

    Come into My Parlour
    November 1946
    Gregory Sallust

    The Launching of Roger Brook
    July 1947
    Roger Brook

    The Shadow of Tyburn Tree
    May 1948
    Roger Brook

    The Haunting of Toby Jugg
    December 1948
    Out of series

    The Rising Storm
    October 1949
    Roger Brook

    Of Vice and Virtue
    1950, month unknown
    Out of series
    Never published in UK either commercially or privately

    The Second Seal
    November 1950
    Duke de Richleau

    The Man Who Killed the King
    November 1951
    Roger Brook

    Star of Ill Omen
    May 1952
    Out of series

    To the Devil – A Daughter
    January 1953
    Out of series

    Curtain of Fear
    October 1953
    Out of series

    The Island where Time Stands Still
    September 1954
    Gregory Sallust

    The Dark Secret of Josephine
    March 1955
    Roger Brook

    The Ka of Gifford Hillary
    July 1956
    Out of series

    The Prisoner in the Mask
    September 1957
    Duke de Richleau

    Traitors’ Gate
    September 1958
    Gregory Sallust

    The Rape of Venice
    October 1959
    Roger Brook

    The Satanist
    August 1960
    Sequel to To the Devil – A Daughter

    Vendetta in Spain
    August 1961
    Duke de Richleau

    Mayhem in Greece
    August 1962
    Out of series

    The Sultan’s Daughter
    August 1963
    Roger Brook

    Bill for the Use of a Body
    April 1964
    Julian Day

    They Used Dark Forces
    October 1964
    Gregory Sallust

    Dangerous Inheritance
    August 1965
    Duke de Richleau

    The Wanton Princess
    August 1966
    Roger Brook

    Unholy Crusade
    August 1967
    Out of series

    The White Witch of the South Seas
    August 1968
    Gregory Sallust

    Evil in a Mask
    August 1969
    Roger Brook

    Gateway to Hell
    August 1970
    Duke de Richleau

    The Ravishing of Lady Mary Ware
    August 1971
    Roger Brook

    The Strange Story of Linda Lee
    August 1972
    Out of series

    The Irish Witch
    August 1973
    Roger Brook

    Desperate Measures
    September 1974
    Roger Brook

    Duke de Richleau, Gregory Sallust, Julian Day, Roger Brook.

    Three Inquisitive People was first in order of writing. It appeared first in an omnibus in 1939. Of Vice and Virtue was commissioned by the British Foreign Office as propaganda against Communism for circulation in the Middle East only, in Arabic and Persian.

  8. davidderrick Says:

    Wheatley the historian, same publisher:

    Old Rowley – A Private Life of Charles II
    September 1933
    Illustrated by Frank C Papé

    Red Eagle – The Story of the Russian Revolution and of Klementy Efremovitch Voroshilov
    October 1937
    History of the revolution and biography of Klementy Efremovitch Voroshilov, Marshal and Commissar, illustrated


    Anthologies edited, autobiographies, board games, books edited, books on wine, crime dossiers, introductions, journalism, occult non-fiction, omnibuses, screenplays, series edited (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult), stories, war papers submitted to Joint Planning Staff, other wartime writings

  9. davidderrick Says:

    Adrian Murdoch: “He worked for intelligence, though I don’t know if it was IN intelligence.”

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