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.”