Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Comedy of Crime


Pity Him Afterwards marked the end of the first phase of Donald Westlake’s career. Those first five books earned him a reputation, praise and respect. He had broken out of the world of low rent erotica that had allowed him to practice, and make money whilst practicing, and he had a second line in the hard-boiled with his Parker novels, under the secret pen-name of Richard Stark. It looked all set to carry on, to grow and develop. Except that something went wrong, in the right way.

W - Fugitive Pigeon

Underneath the surface, there’s the making of a serious novel in The Fugitive Pigeon, in the mode already established. It’s a long way beneath the surface, in fact it’s mostly in the situation and the background, but the execution goes off in an unexpected direction.
The narrator is Charlie Poole, who tends bar and lives above the shop at the Rockaway Grill in Canarsie. The big difference between Charlie and Clay, Tim, Ray or Paul is that these are all professional, competent men and Charlie’s a nebbish. He’s the first of Westlake’s parade of hapless schlubs with whom we’ll get very familiar. Charlie’s a bum, he always has been. The job’s undemanding, the work minimal. The bar has never competed with its existing and already successful rivals.
What it does is launder money for its real owners, the Syndicate. And Charlie handles packages when he’s asked to. Until the night two guys in dark overcoats and hats walk in about 2.30am, making wisecracks. They get Charlie to open the till and they empty it so it’ll look like a robbery. But they’re going to kill him.
Thanks to the lucky intervention of the useless beat cop, Patrolman Zicatta, who doesn’t like to pry into other people’s business, Charlie gets away. He knows he’s done nothing wrong, he figures it’s a mistake somewhere, and all he has to do is get that mistake identified and straightened out and he can go back to his life of being a bum at his bar.
Charlie’s the joker in the deck. Put a Clay or a Tim Smith etc., in that situation and you’ve another hard-boiled novel going, but not with Charlie. Charlie is what you might say a bit too real for that sort of thing. Even though he’s a clown, that still makes him a lot closer to us than the Syndicate’s run-of-the-mill guys. Charlie doesn’t know what the hell is going on. He’s hard put to know anything at all, except the fact that he’s the fall guy.
Hell, he isn’t even one of the Syndicate, he’s just a nephew who got lucky through his Uncle Al. Uncle Al’s part of the Syndicate, though Aunt Florence doesn’t know it, and Al is more afraid of her finding out than he is of the Syndicate getting the idea that he’s telling his nephew anything. Charlie’s just working his way from name to name, hopefully upwards, until someone tells him what they think he’s done so he can prove he didn’t.
Unfortunately, that proves to be a problem when he walks in on Farmer Agricola on Staten Island, because the Farmer is dead and nobody will believe Charlie didn’t do it, not his somewhat inefficient bodyguard Clarence, and definitely not his beautiful, blonde, fragile daughter Althea, who intends to revenge herself on Charlie but is too fragile to hold a gun straight and misses him twice in an enclosed space from six feet, so Charlie and his pal Artie Johnson, and Artie’s little dark Jewish Princess morning-after girl Chloe Shapiro have to take Althea hostage…
You’re beginning to get the picture now, aren’t you?
There’s Mr Gross, who is, and his theories based on the evidence that have no bearing on reality but which would work perfectly in a serious gangster book, who lets slip that Charlie is supposed to be an informer, so you can see why the Mob might take umbrage…
What Westlake has done, and surprised himself in doing, is turned the whole thing into a frantic farce, exaggerating both character and incident to the point that their very absurdity makes them feel much more natural. Throw in a happy ever after ending with Chloe and the result was the first in a long string of comic crime novels based on applying the way real, self-obsessed, inconvenient people behave to crime of all kind.
From a start like this, John Dortmunder was born out of Parker.

W - Busy Body

Once you’ve done something like that, the natural impulse is to try it out and see if you can do it again. Westlake switched to Richard Stark for two more Parker novels before producing The Busy Body.
Never do the same thing twice in a row. This is still a gangster story and it still fills itself up with the standard gangster cliches and it could still be a straight story with a little planing down, but it isn’t. Our man this time is Aloysius ‘Al’ Engel, though he’s mostly Engel, and we’re in the third person here. Engel is, more by luck than good judgement, right hand man to Nick Rovito, a boss who has his own business that the cops are plenty interested in, especially Deputy Inspector Callaghan, who is honest. Engel does things for Nick. Mostly it’s glorified secretarial stuff but it gives him a good life and it makes his clinging mother proud that he’s higher up the organisation than his bum of a father never was. Engel’s fine with it. Until Nick Rovito’s latest order.
The opening chapter is all about a funeral, a great send-off like the old days. Charlie Brody wasn’t big enough to rate this kind of show, but since everything got better organised and people don’t end up getting gunned down, Charlie’s the chance to do it up right and proper, the old-fashioned way, even if what happened to him was that he had a heart attack whilst heating up some soup, fell on the hotplate and pretty much burnt his face off. Even if he was just a runner, who took money to Baltimore and brought heroin back.
And it all goes well. Engel rides in the first carriage, with Nick and Mrs Brody, who’s going to be going back to work next week under her former name Bobbi Bounds, and she’s weeping like any widow and about how she dressed him in his blue suit and nobody says a thing until the last line of the chapter when, leaving the grave, Nick takes Engel aside and tells him to mark the place quietly. Because tonight, when it’s dark, Engel’s going back to dig Charlie Brody up…
It’s a great stinger. Engel doesn’t like it, he’s not keen on becoming a body-snatcher and he’s also not keen on being told to take an informer with him to do the hard labour, then rub him out with the shovel and leave him in the grave when Engel comes out with Brody’s suit jacket. You see, that’s what Charlie used to carry his separate commodities to and from. They were sewn into the lining of his blue suit jacket. When Charlie got buried in that suit, he took a quarter of a million dollars of horse with him.
So Engel picks up Willie Enchik, who’s drunk and garrulous and altogether a noisy guy to have round you in a cemetery at 2.00 am when you’re illegally digging up a grave, and it only makes it worse when you get down there and find that the coffin is empty. So, where has Charlie gone?
That is the story. Engel has to find Charlie, or rather he has to find Charlie’s jacket but it almost certainly has Charlie’s body in it so it’s all the same and it doesn’t help that when he calls on the mortician, he finds the Police there because the mortician’s last job was an Officer, and it was his last job because Engel finds him dead, stabbed, and this tall, skinny, Scandinavian type blonde announces to all the Police assembled that Engel has killed her husband. Only she’s not the mortician’s wife.
All Engel has to do is work out what’s going on, and persuade Nick Rovito at a crucial moment, whilst he’s on the run from the Police and the Syndicate alike, that he’s not been running his own private protection racket that’s going to get him rubbed out too. Engel succeeds mainly because he’s not a schlub like Charlie Poole (even though, whilst on the run, he calls in the Rockaway Grill in Canarsie, because Westlake drops these little links in, to show that all these stories are taking place in the same, real world).
No, Engel knows what he is doing and eventually he works out who is behind all this, and that it’s nothing to do with Charlie Brody’s quarter of a million dollars of uncut heroin – he does find out who got the horse but not through working it out – and it gets him out from under, and all the way out because he doesn’t want to work for Nick Rovito or the Syndicate any more. It’s events here that are farcical in how they pile up, not the guy in the middle, which leaves the story closer to real than last time, but there is nevertheless a very real difference between The Busy Body and the hard-boiled books, which is that the people involved are themselves real. They have quirks and foibles, they are not grimly serious, there is a warmth that surrounds each of them that is inimical to hard-boiled fiction. It’s possible to imagine the people of this world doing everyday, little things, unconnected to their roles in the crime.

W - Spy in the Ointment

One more Richard Stark later, Westlake continued his approach with The Spy in the Ointment. Though it has the most funny lines to date, a refinement of Westlake’s approach, it was a book of which I could remember absolutely nothing until I started re-reading it. Our man, this time, is J. Eugene Raxford, pacifist and first person narrator, given to going off at tangents to begin with, a trait that diminishes throughout the book as his personal circumstances demand more and more concentration.
Raxford is a pacifist, a whole-hearted pacifist, through and through, although like all pacifists in fiction, and probably most of them in real life, he will overcome his principles at the furthest provocation and save the day. Not at first, far from it. Raxford is the National Chairman of the fringe organisation, the Citizens Independence Union, or CIU from hereon for as long as we need to refer to it. The CIU was once a thriving organisation of some 1,400 students, that is, until drafting for the Korean War ended, since when it’s a bit smaller. Nowadays it has 17 members, of whom 12 are inactive and only two of the rest are less than two years behind on their subscriptions. We’ll meet the other one shortly.
It all starts with the appearance of Mortimer Eulaly. Mortimer has a proposition. He also has a list of ten other fringe organisations, whose aims and purposes are, on the whole, completely irreconcilable, none of whom are familiar to Raxford. The one thing they all do have in common is that they are terrorists who first of all have to destroy Society as it is. In vain, Raxford denies the CIU are terrorists, they are pacifists, but Eulaly noddingly recognises that as being for the benefit of the round-the-clock FBI surveillance (actually all their devices stopped functioning years ago for one reason or another – Raxford accidentally spilt evaporated milk on the one in the fridge – but at least he’s never had to empty his wastebasket for three years now). Actually, thanks to a typing error on the part of the FBI, Eulaly has mistaken the CIU for the World Citizens Independence Union who a) don’t believe in borders and blow up customs shacks, b) were terrorists and c) were wiped out to a man years ago.
Eulaly is here to bring all these groups together in order to concentrate the terrorist side of their interests into a spectacularly effective force, and postpone the incompatability of their aims until afterwards.
Raxford doesn’t want to know. Unfortunately, he now has a couple of problems. The FBI won’t take him seriously, they think Eulaly is a con job, a fake threat meant to waste their time and resources. Possibly more important, Raxford may now be in danger from this Council for New Beginnings. After all, he knows about them now so if he doesn’t turn up and play ball…
This suggestion comes from his girlfriend, Angela Ten Eyck, the only other paid-up CIU member. Angela is beautiful, blonde, rich – her father is a very successful arms manufacturer and she pays for Gene’s rent and food – but she’s also dumb. Sweet with it, and passionate for the cause, but still dumb. Nevertheless, Raxford’s friend, rising young lawyer Morris, agrees with her.
So Raxford goes to the meeting, followed by the FBI only they lose the tail, much to Raxford’s fear, accompanied by Angela, to take notes so they can convince the FBI that this is not a snowjob. The meeting’s a hoot. No doubt Westlake’s simplifying horribly but he skewers every competing group with acid and emphasises the total impossibility of any of them working together, they’re all harmless clowns.
Except that when the one business manager class turns to leave, intent on reporting them all, he is murdered, brutally. And the real leader, an obviously cruel and evil man and a sadist to boot, turns out to be Angela’s older brother, Tyrone, who defected in Indochina in 1954, recognises his little sister and send her and Raxford on the run with the aid of another Agency, who aren’t the FBI nor the CIA, but who are inordinately interested in Tyrone and Eulaly.
So Raxford the pacifist ends up co-operating with the Security agency because it makes sense to do so, and going underground, based on five days intensive but not necessarily that effective training in every discipline he might need, except sword-fighting (his instructor gives up after five minutes: if they come at you with a sword, you’re dead, that’s all). Oh, and also based on a well-judged series of stories leaked to the Press about him disappearing with Angela, culminating in the ‘discovery’ of her murdered body.
Which leaves the pacifist pussycat going in with someone who would be very comfortably placed in the World’s Most Dangerous Man stakes, with every possible tracking gimmick lost by an unforeseen but reliably human twist that we will grow very familiar with in the Dortmunder Gang books. Oh sure, he somehow manages to con Tyrone that he’s every bit as much a wolf as the genuine terrorist, but can he really keep it up?
Of course he can, all the way to that briefly violent ending that Raxford is prepared to admit to but not describe, and beyond, to the restoration of his usual life, and after all that cooperating with the authorities, he and Angela are back out there, picketing the United Nations with either commendable consistency or a naïve refusal to learn, and good for them. This was decidedly funny on the level I first found Westlake’s stuff when I first discovered him, even though back then this was just a title on an ‘Other Books By’ page. I’m glad I finally got there.

W - God Save the Mark

Before his next book, God Save the Mark, which would give Westlake the first of his Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, he came up with another pseudonym, this of Tucker Coe, for the first two of eventually five books featuring retired Policeman Mitch Tobin. Another two Richard Starks followed and then came what several people regard as his first masterpiece.
God Save the Mark is a glorious book, and deserving of its accolades. It’s another first person story, this time told by Fred Fitch. Fred is a thirty-one year old recluse from Montana who has his own apartment in New York, where he works as a researcher. He’s soft and round: headed, bellied, that sort of thing. But what Fred is, mostly, which is why his entire family are several States over, is a Mark. A victim. A gulla-bull.
If there’s a con going around, Fred will fall for it. He just cannot bring himself to believe that one human being would deliberately lie to another. To their face. Jack Reilly, of the Bunco Squad, can’t believe Fred can get taken so many times and in so many ways, without learning better. Fred has had to call Reilly so many times that he looks upon Reilly as not just his cop, but more importantly, his friend.
It’s so bad that, at one point in the book, when someone tells Fred that there are 18,000 con-men in America, he wants to boast that he’s been got by all of them.
Naturally enough, the book starts with a con, two of them, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Fred falls for both of them and reports them to Reilly, who’s still amazed after all these years. For once though, Fred has sussed a con out for himself. A lawyer, name of Goodkind, ringing up to tell him his Uncle Matthew is dead and has left him $300,000. Even Fred knows better than to fall for that one. There’s just one flaw. This one is true.
Fred Fitch has inherited $317,000 (after taxes) from an Uncle who apparently chose him because he was the only relative who hadn’t bad-mouthed him, an easy qualification because Fred didn’t know he even had an Uncle Matthew before. Better yet, Uncle Matthew, alias Matt Gray, alias Short Sheet, was, of all things, a con-man.
A con-man who appeared to have made his money in Brazil, before coming home to die of cancer, at which he was spectacularly bad, since he’s already lived five years beyond his ‘six months to live’, but you may not be entirely surprised if someone lost patience and beat his brains out.
And if someone murdered Uncle Matthew, it’s not beyond the bounds of reason that they might also want to dispose of Fred too. Fred, who within a couple of hours of learning of his fortune and being determined, really determined not to fall for any more cons, is fending off a stunning blonde in the Park who is obviously pulling a con, but he winds up going to her apartment at 9.00pm that night, armed only with an address and a surname. This is because she warned him he was in danger, and just that afternoon this kid has to point out to Fred that these guys in a car have been shooting at him, three times in fact, missed them all, and does this Miss Smith really know something about it?
Actually, she doesn’t. Her name is Karen Smith and she’s just won $50 off her boyfriend, who bet Fred wouldn’t fall for it. Her boyfriend is Reilly. From there, it gets complicated. And that’s just Uncle Matthew’s ex-stripper girlfriend, Gertie Divine (the Body Secular).
There are all sorts of little twists and diversions along the way, outside of the story itself, but what it all boils down to is that there is a con operating. A very big one, a very detailed one, with multiple participants and only Fred – alright, temporarily he also has Karen on his side – to try to keep his own head above water and not fall for it. The odds are not short.
Further than that, I’m not prepared to go. This is definitely a book to read without the ending spoiled for you. Otherwise, I have no idea what else was up for consideration for the Edgar Award that year, but I’ll happily throw in with these guys knowing what they’re doing.

W - Who Stole Sassi Manoon

Donald E Westlake published three more novels, under three different names, before Who Stole Sassi Manoon? the last for this post. There was a juvenile, in his own name, a Richard Stark and for the book Anarchaos, an SF story, he chose Curt Clark.
Who Stole Sassi Manoon? has been described as the first of Westlake’s comedy crime-capers and that’s certainly true. Each of the other books has been about passive characters, people doing nothing, who suddenly find themselves being acted upon by an unforeseen circumstance. This is a caper. A crime is to be committed by a trio of young misfits who want to set themselves up so that they can pursue their own interests and to hell with the ordinary world.
The background to the book was unusual. Westlake was commissioned to write a screenplay. When the film fell through, given that he had a book-a-year contract with Random House, he decided not to waste his effort and converted the screenplay into a novel. As such, it contains weaknesses and cliches and implausibilities that are likely to be a reflection of the idea not being totally of Westlake’s shaping.
The caper is the kidnapping of Sassi Manoon, the world’s leading actress, able to command $850,000 per movie, currently in Jamaica as a Judge at a Film Festival. The kidnappers are led, unwillingly, by Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, possibly the only unindulged child in America. Kelly is a misfit, a recluse, a socially inept human being without a sense of humour or any social skills whatsoever. Kelly responds better to machinery, specifically his best buddy, STARNAP, the computer built by him into his yacht, the Nothing Ventured IV. What Kelly wants is enough money to be a misfit without financial concerns and avoid the non-mechanical part of humanity.
He’s even resentful of the fact that STARNAP insists he needs accomplices, resentful enough that when his two choices, Frank Ashford and Robert ‘Robby’ Creswell agree immediately, Kelly’s disappointed that the fun stage, refining the plan with STARNAP is over.
Frank and Robby are also misfits. In Frank’s case, he has reached the age of 25 without the faintest idea of what he wants to do with his life and would appreciate having enough money to think about it with the pressure off. Frank is not very well drawn, being basically someone who does impersonations and nothing more.
Robby, however, is black (this book coming from 1969, he and every other reference is Negro, and it was eye-opening just how offensive that came over as being), and is well aware, from experience, of what position he occupies in this world by virtue of his skin colour.
Robby was Westlake’s first black character to have more than a background role, and he makes a few very pithy points about racism along the way. He’s actually the most complex character in the book and it’s a shame he doesn’t get to dominate more of it.
The cast has three more players. Two of these are the elderly British couple Major ffork-Linton and Miss Adelaide Rushby, all old-fashioned courtesy. This pair are veteran con-men who are also out to kidnap Miss Manoon, to raise a ransom to buy back the life of their foolish son, Percy, who has conned the wrong person in Africa and committed the worst crime of all: not leaving before he got caught.
Then there is Jigger Jackson. Jigger, in case you didn’t immediately suspect, is a young woman, a woman who dreams of becoming a movie star. To date, Jigger’s enthusiastic talents and charms haven’t even got her a screen test, so her latest move is to get to Sassi Manoon and be taken on as a protege. It’s not a bad idea but it’s let down by a fatal flaw. Jigger is a sucker for a shnook. And Kelly Bram Nicholas IV is the Encyclopaedia Brittanica poster-boy for the word ‘shnook’.
None of these people, with the possible exception of Robby, really rise above being broad outlines, not even Sassi herself. Sassi is the bored filmstar of cliche, rich but unsatisfied, unable to take an interest in anything and anyone around her because she’s done it all and seen it all and heard it all so many times that nothing surprises her. As you might imagine, being kidnapped changes things for her more than somewhat, and once the first shock evaporates, Sassi is happy to be held prisoner indefinitely, on a Caribbean beach on a Caribbean island, with nowhere to do and nobody to see and nothing to do. Sassi is having the time of her life.
Once the plot is in motion, and the varying sides have to deal with each other, the book has at least the merit of movement, and some excellent set-pieces, but overall it suffers from being too obviously indebted to its origins. No book of Westlake’s is totally worthless, but this gets much nearer to that territory than most of the others.

These five books show Westlake’s abilities at turning crime into comedy, surprising him as much as it did everybody else. Though he varied his approach down the years, the comedic crime would be the form to which he would turn most often. In the next set of five books, we will see him flexing his muscles a bit more.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Hard-Boiled Beginning


When Donald E Westlake published his first book under his own name, he had already had seven novels appear under the name Alan Marshall, one of them a collaboration with ‘Sheldon Lord’, aka Lawrence Block. His real debut appeared as The Mercenaries, though it was also published in Britain as The Smashers: currently it’s available under Westlake’s preferred title, The Cutie.
The book immediately establishes him as a confident writer of hard-boiled crime. Though Westlake is better known for his comic crime fiction, and not just the Dortmunder books, he began serious and envisaged a career in that style of crime-writing. Both The Cutie and its first three sequels were written in the first person in the classic style. Taut, stripped down, mostly emotionless, tough of story and character. Only in his fifth novel did Westlake move into the third person and that, for me, is the weakest of the five books of this phase, as well as the first one I read.

W - The Cutie

The Cutie is cold, hard, emotionless and operates to an inevitable logic. It’s narrator is George Clayton – Clay – right-hand man to Ed Ganolese. Clay does what Ed wants, efficiently, effectively. That includes making people have accidents when its necessary, and killing them when he’s told to do it himself. Clay doesn’t think too much about how he got into this business, or why he does it. He’s Ed’s man. There’s a reason for that, something Ed did, for no better reason than to play with the cops, but it kept Clay out of jail for twenty years.
Clay’s got a nice apartment. Currently, he’s sharing it with Ella. She’s not his wife, she’s a dancer and she’s just a girl, like others before her, except she’s not. Clay’s in love. Ella knows something about his job and is carefully not knowing more than she has to. She loves Clay but she doesn’t love his job.
Everything begins with Billy-Billy Cantell, a low-level junkie and dealer, one of the syndicate. A woman, Mavis St Paul, has been murdered, stabbed. Billy-Billy knows this ahead of others because he passed out in an alley and woke up in Mavis’s apartment, with her, dead. He didn’t do it. But he’s been framed very neatly for it.
Normally, it would be simple. The syndicate would hand over Billy-Billy’s body, the cops would look no further, all neat and simple. But someone over the water owes Billy-Billy a favour. So Ed’s got to protect him. Which means Clay’s got to protect him. Which means Clay has got to find the cutie who set all of this up. Whilst keeping the Police off his back. Whilst trying to figure out if he can be married to Ella and be part of Ed’s syndicate. And if he can’t, which one counts for more?
This is as much a detective story as it is an inside story of how organised crime works. Clay is no hero: Westlake doesn’t deal in heroes, nor good guys. By the time the book comes to its climax, and Clay kills the cutie with a bullet to the head, he’s emotionally involved in everything but the killing. Ed’s emotionally involved too, which causes Clay to come to a certain realisation. Leaving the book on a cliffhanger which has only one outcome, and one that sets up an entirely new cutie…

W - Killing Time

Six more Alan Marshall books, including another collaboration with Sheldon Lord, followed, and three of that ilk under the named of Edwin West, before Westlake published Killing Time. This is a different kind of book. Tim Smith, a chunky guy in his late-thirties, in a relationship with Mayor’s secretary, Cathy, is the only private detective in Winston, an upstate New York small town of 40,000 people. Someone tries to kill him. Tim disarms his would-be attacker, a pro from New York, calls the Police. As they escort him out of the diner where this has taken place, the pro is shot and killed. Three more attempts on Tim’s life take place over the next twenty-four hours. His landlord, old Joe Casale, dies as a result of one of these.
It’s a fine set-up for a crime book, if you’re into that sort of thing. The private eye is usually the good guy. But about the only real ‘good guy’ in the whole of Winston is Cathy, who cares more about Tim than you might imagine.
Because although Winston might look, from the outside, like your everyday, average small town, underneath the surface it is your everyday, average small town, riddled with corruption at every level. It’s owned by Jordan Reed, of the main local chemical plant employers, and everyone beneath him, from Mayor, to Councilmen, to Chief of Police, are bought. Everyone’s got their schemes and scams. There is a level of opposition led by Councilman Jack Wycza, who’s padded his payroll with relatives.
And Tim’s not clean either. Tim’s in this set-up. He’s honest, up to a line, that line being what he does to stay within the system, and make a living. Now someone wants to kill him, and there’s only seven people who it could be, Reed and his cabal. Because Tim’s got fifteen years of files that could bring everybody down. And Citizens for Clean Government, or CCG for short, are turning their intervention towards Winston.
CCG are a reformer’s group. They want Tim to come over to them, and Ron Lascow, the young lawyer who’s as close to a friend as Tim has. That’s why someone wants Tim dead, because they’re afraid he’ll jump and they want his files before CCG get them.
Tim isn’t going to sell out. Civic Government in Winston might be as rotten as it comes but it’s competent, it works, this remains a decent, well-governed town. But if the attempts on his life don’t stop by a certain time, he’s going over to talk to the incorruptible, almost-puritanically honest Ron Mesetti and he’s taking his insurance with him. But CCG isn’t as clean as it purports to be. Jordan Reed does a deal with CCG. Jack Wycza does a deal with Reed. Scapegoats are to be flung to the wolves, Tim and Ron among them.
But the Casale clan want the murderer of their patriarch. Tim points them in the right direction. The result is all-out war, bloody, violent, comprehensive, decimating all three sides in an astonishing battle that removes all semblance of government in Winston, that will destroy the town. And which, in a startling final twist, not a million miles removed from the one that ends The Cutie but a lot more definitively, includes the last first person you’d expect…

W - 361

Immediately after Killing Time, Westlake published his first Parker book, The Hunter, under the name of Richard Stark. I have only read one Richard Stark book, but its level of hard-boiled had been in the pan a lot longer than these first two novels. Stark was a different mindset for Westlake, and he maintained the secrecy of his pseudonym for many years, surprising a great many people when he finally admitted the connection.
Though he hadn’t totally done with either Alan Marshall or Edwin West, Westlake’s next book was again in his own name. 361 was an odd, but pointed title, deriving from Roget’s Thesaurus of all things: entry .361 (Destruction of life; violent death) Killing. Well.
This novel is narrated by Ray Kelly. Ray’s just got out of the Air Force after three years in Germany. His Dad, a lawyer named Willard Kelly Sr., has come to New York to collect him and take him home to Binghamton, upstate, plus his older brother Bill Jr., his wife Anna who Ray’s never met, and his five month old daughter, likewise. Dad wants to hang around the hotel but Ray wants to see something of the City. On the way out, to drive home, a car pulls up alongside them. Its passenger shoots Willard. The crash costs Ray his right eye and a busted ankle that won’t reconstruct properly. Whilst Bill is in the hospital watching over him, his wife is killed in a hit and run accident.
361 is a revenge novel. We never get any idea of who Ray was, before, but almost to the end of the book he’s cold and hard. Revenge is all that he thinks about, and he has to drive Bill along before him, because Bill, when it comes down to it, is a normal guy, that is to say, soft.
Sure, Ray’s affected by what has happened, but neither he nor Westlake wallow in that, because this is hard-boiled, remember, and emotion does not creep out into it, which makes this book dirty inside, like you’re going to have to scrub the inside of your head clean once you’ve finished it. There’s not even a female presence in it, like Ella or Cathy. Ray has nothing, not home nor purpose, just his revenge and the suggestion that once that is done there’ll be so much more less nothing, that he might trying walking on the bottom of a lake.
Because everything is dirty inside. Everything about Ray’s life is a lie, no-one is who they said they were. There’s a former gangster named Eddie Kapp, coming out of Dannemorra after twenty years for tax evasion, which he maintains was a cheat. Eddie plans to restore the old order, remove the bookkeepers and accountants who run the syndicate now, like Ed Ganolese of The Cutie, but he needs his boy beside him, his son and heir, Ray Kelly.
Ray goes along with it, especially after Bill is killed, but only so far as a name, Ed Ganolese’s name. He goes out and kills Ganolese. Then a piece of information comes into his hands and he realises there’s been one more lie than he’d taken account of, and one more killing is needed.
At least Ray gets out of this alive, though once you take his revenge out of it, he is and has got nothing to go forward with. But the thing about hard-boiled is that you don’t care, because you’re not meant to care, that’s why it’s hard-boiled.

W - Killy

This time, there was only one Edwin West book before Westlake penned Killy. The book takes its name from its most upfront character, Walter Killy, High School hero, former pro-footballer, Union organiser and a buoyant, confident character, but it’s narrated by Paul Standish, a Monequois University student just starting six months of what we would call work experience with AAMST (American Alliance of Machinists and Skilled Trades). Paul, 24, immediately admires Killy (38) for his all-round knowledge, skill, experience and, I suppose we’d have to call it Life Force.
The Union has received a letter from a worker in a one-industry upstate town, Wittsburg (to get there you go through Binghamton) suggesting discontent with the factory Union and that a contingent would like AAMST to come here and organise. So Killy and Paul set off to see what it’s like.
It’s all upfront and above board. If the mood’s right and an election is winnable, they stay and do things open and democratically. If it’s not, they turn round and go home. They go to Charles Hamilton’s home but he’s at work and his wife is a frightened nag who doesn’t want him getting involved in anything like that, oh ho, not at all. Killy tells her they have to speak to Hamilton, and if he doesn’t come down to their motel by seven, they’ll come back to his home. Instead, they’re arrested by the Police, who do a thorough job of being shitty, giving them a hard time. In the station, they’re separated, browbeaten, beaten, pressed to confess. To Hamilton’s murder.
Thus begins the descent into the by-now familiar sewer. It’s a no longer new picture of Police corruption, running a town for the benefit of those who own it, deciding that someone has done a killing and bending the truth into a pretzel in order to get the ‘evidence’ of guilt.
Standish, quite frankly, is too dumb and naïve to be at all convincing as a killer, or even a killer’s sidekick. What he is though is someone who’s dumb and naïve and idealistic who’s just had his world-image destroyed beyond any reconstruction. He’s angry and wants to strike back. He doesn’t know how, and his stumbling around keeps bringing him back to the Police’s attentions, which get increasingly rough, and it also leads to a second murder. Not to mention sex with this victim’s grand-daughter within a few hours of the death.
This is Alice Jeffers, a pretty, delicate, even fragile 27 year old who lives only to get out of Wittsburg (I can sympathise), preferably to Los Angeles. Alice knows the great secret that got Hamilton killed, embezzlement of factory funds. She helps Paul kidnap the books to be gone over by the Union accountant. That enables Killy to force the hand of the Manager, Jacob Fleish, to allow elections. But these are to be fair, proper and democratically conducted elections.
So things have calmed down, it’s going ahead. Paul’s busy. He’s active, he’s smart, he’s got a future in the Union. He’s also got George, the real Union muscle – who does nothing except hang around, resting – watching him with amusement and genuine liking, waiting for Paul to catch on. Because now it’s Killy who’s screwing Alice, Killy the good guy, the hero, who’s out to get on, to move up.
Paul doesn’t like that. Paul’s changed. Paul needs to get even with Killy, like he’s been getting even with so many other people who’ve fucked him around since he got to Wittsburg. Paul isn’t dumb and naïve any more and he certainly isn’t idealistic. A false accusation of murder satisfies so many needs for revenge, as well as a rapid advancement of his position in AAMST. Paul’s changing. He’s turning into someone else. Into Killy.

W - Pity Him Afterwards

Westlake turned in one more book each as Alan Marshall and Edwin West, which proved to be the last we saw of those pen-names, but not necessarily that subject. Four more Richard Starks followed before he produced the last of these initial hard-boiled crime novels. This was Pity Him Afterwards, his first in the third person. It was the first of this quintet of early works that I read and it’s by a long way the weakest.
Robert Ellington is a mental patient, committed to an asylum after two brutal murders. He has a very high IQ, a very high persecution complex fixated on a mythical Doctor Chax and a confused belief in a good world where people help each other – i.e., him – without thought or concern. He’s just escaped from the asylum after killing one of the wardens, and before the first chapter is over, he’s killed three more people and decided to adopt the identity of one of them, an actor on his way to perform in a summer season of what we would call a repertory company.
Westlake splits the book into three external viewpoints, Mel Daniels, another member of the company, arriving late at Cartier Isle, Eric Sondgard, English Lecturer at Monequois University and summer Chief of Police at Cartier Isle and Ellington, who is never named as such in these sections but who is referred to exclusively as the madman, as if that were an official title.
Sondgard’s an amateur. He’s got a State Police Captain Garrett to call on but, being intelligent enough to sense what lies behind the killings – the madman will commit five more before the book is done, all but one by strangulation – believes he can do the job better that the orthodox professional, Garrett.
And Sondgard is the one who, after blaming himself for the first of the additional deaths, decides to cut down Ellington, like a mad dog, to stop him killing anyone else, and to pity him afterwards. And does so.
If Westlake wanted to set up an opposition, an argument as to how we approach the mentally ill, he fails completely. As well as Sondgard’s well-meaning urges to understand and help, there’s Dr Raymond Peterby of the asylum from which Ellington escaped, popping up mid-book to defend his patient, to demand understanding, to insist upon his being treated with gentleness in order to straighten him out, put his brilliant mind to use for the good of society, the only goal a cured Ellington would see. And Peterby provides a coda of complete misunderstanding when, informed of Ellington’s death, he regrets the stupidity and fear with which the mental patient has been regarded.
That’s if Westlake wants to set up this operation. I’m convinced he wanted to set up Peterby as a fall guy, a smug and unrealistic figure with lofty ideals that somehow never seem to encompass the reality everyone else has to deal with, which is that Ellington is a homicidal maniac whose delusions drive him into murder, over and again. The madman sections are too overwhelming, they make it impossible to see Ellington as curable and turn him only into a mad dog that has to be put down for the safety of everyone else.
Overall, the book never really attains coherence. I don’t have any of the clinical knowledge to comment upon Westlake’s depiction of the inside of Ellington’s head, I only knew that it was both a terrible place, and a tedious one to be stuck in.

It’s pretty obvious that I don’t particularly enjoy this hard-boiled phase of Donald Westlake’s career. That’s because I don’t particularly enjoy hard-boiled crime novels in the first place. So far as I can judge, as an amateur, these books are decent examples of the genre, Pity Him Afterwards excepted. But their lack of emotion is off-putting. They depict a world without light or shade, just the same monotone of greyness. That world may be real, but I don’t want to share it. Westlake could do better, and did do better. The beginning of better came with an unexpected change of emphasis, starting with the next novel under his own name. I’ll cover that period in the next post.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: Introduction


56576228UA600_Westlake
2006/04/04. Donald Westlake, american author….PARIS – APRIL 04: American author Donald Westlake poses while in Paris, France on the 4th of April 2006.(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Donald Edwin Westlake, Grand Master of the Crime Writers Association of America, died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve 2008, aged 75, still a working writer. Though he never had the best seller his talent deserved, he was an immensely popular and tremendously respected writer who, in a career starting in 159, wrote 108 novels. These were not all crime fiction, but the majority of them were. Four novels have been published posthumously, and a fifth will join that score in 2022.
Not all of that impressive number were published under the name of Donald Westlake. At the beginning of his career, when he was learning his craft and earning his way, Westlake wrote a series of cheap softcore porn books, usually but not exclusively under the name of Alan Marshall. He had a long and successful career as a writer of hard-boiled crime under the famous pseudonym Richard Stark, creator of the professional criminal Parker, consisting of 24 books about Parker and a further 4 about Parker’s associate Alan Grofeld. As Tucker Coe, he wrote five books about retired Policeman Mitch Tobin and as Samuel Holt four about a synonymous TV Actor turned amateur detective. Fourteen of those novels featured the Dortmunder Gang, which I have written about here almost a decade ago.
I discovered Donald Westlake in Didsbury Library in 1971/2, half a dozen Hodder & Stoughton hardbacks, including the first couple of Dortmunders. The one that intrigued me most, and which I borrowed first, was the now incredibly hard to get Adios Scheherazade, a very funny and very painful book that, instead of being about crime, was based on Westlake’s experiences writing porn. I worked my way through those the Library had to offer but went on to concentrate upon the Dortmunders. Adios Scheherazade was and is still my favourite. I bought it when I could, and had one or two of his other books, but generally it was Dortmunder or not.
Earlier this year, I happened to notice on Amazon a Westlake book titled Put a Lid on It, the idea behind which riffed off the Watergate Burglary, but being carried out by a professional criminal who has no interest in politics. I liked the idea enough to buy it, though I was surprised, when it arrived, to find that instead of it being something from the Seventies, it had been written in 2002, long after its inspiration.
As such things tend to do, it kick-started an enthusiasm for all the other Westlake books, the ones I read before and the ones that would be new to me. I’ve spent several months on this, starting with the cheapest first and keeping my eyes open for economy priced versions of the ones whose prices make the eyes water.
I’ve not got them all. There’s a handful that, for various reasons, I’ve omitted from my pursuit, but I’ve got most of them and read all the ones I’ve bought, and once I’d done that the time to write about these books came around.
Given that I’m looking at something like 30 books that I’ve read in a totally haphazard order, I’m not going to write about each novel individually. It certainly wouldn’t do for the first five books to appear under Westlake’s own name, which I’ll be grouping together for the first entry, beginning next week.

*Shameless Plug* Malcolm Saville’s ‘Seven White Gates’


02 - Seven White Gates

Those of you who combine reading this blog with an interest in Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club book series may be interested to know that, by popular demand, the inestimable GirlsGoneBy publishers are re-printing Seven White Gates, the second book of the series. All the superb GirlsGoneBy editions are long out of print now, and not all of them can be found on eBay. Even though I’ve got the set, I’m delighted to see at least one more coming back into print.

Those who are interested can order the book via this link. The book is currently at the printers and is anticipated to be delivered for distribution of orders on or about September 7. And the reason this is a Shameless Plug will be apparent to anyone who clicks on the link, as the book contains a New Introduction, written specially for this re-publication, by your humble blogger himself .

You can buy the book with a clear conscience, I don’t get a penny for it, and for reasons that I set out in my Introduction, this is a very strong book with an important theme for its original audience. The selfish element is that I have my eye on the posibility of writing New Introductions for other books in the series, but that depends on demand for more reprints, so naturally a swell of orders for Seven White Gates would be encouraging (mention that you want to see Not Scarlet But Gold re-appear, you’ll be doing me a favour).

But most of all, enjoy the book.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – Part 5 – Appraisal


Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. This was supposed to be a short series of three posts: Introduction, Review, Appraisal, and this post would have been an excoriation of Dennis Wheatley, writer and Arch-Conservative, based on the consideration of a single book.
But a momentary impulse, answered by a synchronistic discovery, has led to a more substantial project. Instead of one, I have read four books, have been able to comment directly on more writings, and in doing so I’ve reduced the task for this final appraisal. Patterns of mind and habits of writing have been looked at in more depth: having jumped up and down on a few more books than I’d intended means I have less that needs to be said here.
It doesn’t make any difference that the four books I’ve reacquainted myself with are all from the same series, that of the Duc de Richleau, with and without his fellow ‘Modern Musketeers’. There were eleven de Richleau books in the series, three of which took Wheatley’s brand of Crowley-inspired Black Magic as their theme, so what I’ve read covers about a third of the series in more or less the correct proportion.
In addition to de Richleau. Wheatley also wrote two other lengthy series, featuring Roger Brook and Gregory Sallust respectively. Brook’s series, at twelve books marginally the longest, was straight historical fiction, covering the entire period of the French Revolution, from pre-Revolutionary France all the way to Waterloo. Brook is an unofficial British spy, under the direct orders of Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, who works his way up to become a close and trusted aide to Napoleon himself. Needless to say, Wheatley’s sympathies are firmly on the side of the aristos throughout.
The Sallust series, also of eleven books, is a bit harder to categorise. The heart of it is a seven book sequence covering the whole of the Second World War in which Sallust, a journalist, operates as an unofficial British spy against the Nazis. This run was preceded by a rather ridiculous book, extending the contemporary circumstances of the Great Depression into a future created out of all Wheatley’s prejudices, of a Communist-but-quasi-Fascist takeover, the rebellion of freedom fighters under Sallust and resolution occurring in the form of a restoration of the Monarchy. Post-War, so to speak, Sallust became just another globe-trotting Peter Pan hero, shagging strange woman and getting involved with Black Magic.
Sallust’s series, being set in contemporary times with modern weaponry to hand, was by some measure the most brutal of the three, with an underlying barbarity and sadistic grimness, which can be partially justified, I suppose, by being set in the Nazi period, and a response to their inhuman savagery, but it’s there in the first book, the embodiment of Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s claim that ‘Extremism in the defence of Liberty is no vice.’
But by now we’ve had fair exposure to Wheatley’s key characteristics, the most important of which is his Conservatism, served up with big and little ‘c’s. Wheatley, who had no upper class status or claims of his own, a Wine-seller whose business ineptitude brought the long-established family business to its knees, forcing him to turn to writing to keep a roof over his head, nevertheless believed in a stratified society, with a Monarch at the very pinnacle.
What followed was old-established aristocracy, who were the only and natural rulers, thanks to their centuries of experience of rule making them the only ones capable of the breadth of mind and knowledge to be wise, fair and just in leading their country. Then the rich, but not the crass, money-obsessed nouveau riche, who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
To these were the privileges of rule reserved, with anyone else, meaning everybody lower in the social spectrum, being hopelessly inept through looking only to contemporary concerns instead of appreciating a true historical perspective formed over centuries.
And to these people, and these alone, were the privileges of life arrogated, for only they could appreciate them, not like the plebs, oiks and common scum beneath them (sorry, did I suddenly start getting too direct there?).
It covers the Modern Musketeers like a comfort blanket. The Duc, tenth of his line, connected to the monarchy of France, openly regretful that he cannot indulge his whims that display his wealth and status. Rex van Ryn, heir to a massive Banking fortune. Simon Aron (but dammit, the man’s a Jew!), financial genius. Richard Eaton, landed gentry. Neither privation nor Law apply to gentlemen of this caste, such things are for the lesser orders, who don’t matter, and who probably need such things to keep them in their place. Wheatley unashamedly boasted that, whilst engaged in Intelligence work in the Second World War, that he and his fellows wined and dined extravagantly as if Rationing didn’t apply to them, and it shouldn’t: after all, they were important.

Black August

As I said above, in the Sallust book, Black August, dear old Britain is truly up shit creek, its world as shattered and dangerous as any in a John Wyndham catastrophe novel, bt as soon as the Prince Regent tales over, all magically becomes well. A place for everybody and everybody in his place. And all the privileges belonging to the likes of the Duc and his acolytes, whose sophistication, intelligence, taste and their attachment to a stratified social system which cannot and must not be overthrown is self-evidently right.
Lacking any such qualifications himself, but clearly believing he was entitled to them, Wheatley was a classic case of a would-be hanger-on, elevating what he worshipped to not just an ideal but an inviolable state of nature.
The only time I saw actusally saw and heard him was a BBC TV interview late in his life. Here was an elderly buffer in a white smoking jacket with a self-important manner. All I can remember was his insistence that all rock’n’roll music was the work of the devil and that before they were released, Satanic priests were brought in to ‘bless’ the master tapes. Even now, and after being advised by someone in a position to know that there is far more of that in pop and rock than you’d ordinarily give credit for, and having had certain signs pointed out to me, I find it next to impossible to take his claims remotely seriously.
As I was still enjoying his writing, the interview was a bit of a balloon-pricker. Not too long after it began to dawn on me that Wheatley despised me: not personally, he despised all of us who were ordinary, or from working class backgrounds, and thought of us as ignorant and unwashed. Literally, in the case of his book, The Ka of Gifford Hillary.
Clever as it is on one, Magic oriented level, the book stinks for its attitudes. Hillary, a successful businessman, has re-married richer and younger and his snobbish second wife doesn’t like her stepdaughter, who lives a working class life. She doesn’t like the girl visiting at all, even before she and her friends have the temerity to try on some of wifey’s clothes. Then she goes incandescent. Daughter being working class and not bathing three or four times a day has sweated all over wifey’s clothes and they have to be thoroughly washed to remove the stink of working class bodies, and no doubt the lice as well.
And there’s a deeply unpleasant, voyeuristic scene where Hillary, who spends most of the book undergoing an out-of-body experience, watched his chauffeur in his bedroom and is condescendingly pitying towards the man over the fact that his working-class wife is flat-chested.
Which brings me to Wheatley’s attitude to women, which is simple: they are there to be screwed by the hero, sometimes in loving relationships, but always disposable. The hero ends the boom having got the girl but somehow or other she’s not there in the next book, so as to make room for him to set his cap for another conquest. Lady Felicity. Tanith. Angela Syveton, killed whilst pregnant by an anarchist’s bomb in the first chapter of the sequel to The Prisoner in the Mask. Ilona Theresa, marrying but soon to die of consumption.
Off the top of my head I can think of only three women who weren’t ditched or despatched in between books to give the hero someone new to defile, and these were Princess Marie Louise in the de Richleau’s, Lady Georgina in the Roger Brooks and Gregory Sallust’s fit blonde German shag-mate. Without looking this up, I can’t remember her name, but I vividly remember Wheatley repeatedly describing her as having breasts capable of fitting perfectly into vintage, balloon-like champagne glasses.
Which says it all, really.

Gifford

Very late in his career, indeed in his penultimate novel, Wheatley’s produced The Strange Case of Linda Lee, tackling the unusual subject of a young woman’s experiences in the late Sixties (hint, she screws her way to the top). Ian Fleming was criticised, then and since, for The Spy Who Loved Me, an offbeat James Bond novel that is told first person by a young woman whose path he crosses, criticised for his appallingly ignorant approach to seemingly incarnating a young woman. Wheatley makes him look like Margaret Atwood.
If you must read a Dennis Wheatley book, make it an early one (but not Three Inquisitive People, and I’d advise you miss out Such Power Is Dangerous too). These books at least have the advantage of freshness, and whilst the odd post-WW2 book has its moments – To the Devil a Daughter is perhaps the best – Wheatley starts to drown in horrific notions.
The political aspect gets more strident. Curtain of Fear stars a left-oriented teacher originally from Czechoslovakia, whose brother was a prominent scientist. Our teacher has an English girlfriend. At the start of the book they differ over what is most important: he is for liberty, equality and truth whilst she believes in God, the Queen and Britain.
This difference in attitudes threatens to break them up but he gets kidnapped back to Communist Czechoslovakia over the weekend, trying to stop his brother – a double agent? – defecting back there, sees Communism at first hand, escapes back in time for Monday and when he next sees his girlfriend, equality and liberty can go take a flying fuck, he’s a fully paid-up God, Queen and country man and they can marry and produce patriotic babies.
All sorts of shitty attitudes crop up. One latish novel is about a young man – inevitably called Benny – who’s a bit mentally, well, slow, and who violently rapes this pretty woman whilst she’s changing into her bathing costume because he thinks that’s what you should do. You’ll no doubt be stunned to learn that she’s completely fine with it and agrees to marry him.
There’s a comment elsewhere by the mother of a marriageable daughter, in casual conversation giving her opinion that rape is probably not as bad an experience as it’s made out to be because, after all, it’s usually the woman’s first experience of sex anyway.
And from start to finish, the writing itself, the choice of words and their yoking together in sentences, is at best undistinguished, but primarily flat and banal. Sentences are churned out with no thought for elegance or style but merely the conveying of fact. Dialogue is largely pointed and awkward. Everybody has their preset character and Wheatley is only concerned with having them talk up to what they are supposed to be.
Even as early as The Devil Rides Out there were phrases and paragraphs that will go on to be repeated interminably, like Rex’s exhortations about cocktails or Simon’s inability to correctly pronounce the word ‘No’ of all things, it coming out as ‘Ner’ because of his full-lipped Jewish mouth that he can’t close fully. I’ve already commented, in the book, about Richard’s pig-headed obsession with his luxurious food and drink, or more aptly given where his pettishness points, drink and food.
And, tying back into the class stratification, all this food is fresh, of the highest unadulterated quality and, it is heavily intimated, far too good for the common folk who would never appreciate it in the the first place (yeah, the snobs would get so far up my nose, I couldn’t appreciate the bouquet).
Save that the writer of children’s fiction is much more of an ordinary man whose concern lies with ordinary people than an aristocracy suck-up, there is no more subtlety in Wheatley than in Malcolm Saville’s Marston Baines books.

Linda Lee

In making Dennis Wheatley my first favourite adult writer, I was following in my father’s footsteps, both consciously and unconsciously. Of all the things I wish that I had had the chance to ask him, about his life and feelings and opinions, the one I miss asking the least is almost certainly, “What the Hell did you see in him?!”

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – Part 4 – Three Inquisitive People/The Second Seal


Three Inquisitive people

This was supposed to be a simple thing. One post to introduce, one book as an example and one post to summarise. Instead, a random impulse that stunned me by being fulfilled has led me to three more Wheatley novels, and fairness to myself demands that I have something to show for that unexpected turn by reviewing these as well. However, I shall combine them into a single post.
The first of these that I read was Three Inquisitive People, Dennis Wheatley’s actual first-written novel, detailing the coming together of le Duc de Richleau, Rex van Ryn and Simon Aron, with a bit part that’s more McGuffin than character for Richard Eaton. As I’ve mentioned before, Three Inquisitive People was put aside in favour of The Forbidden Territory and eventually only appeared in 1940, when it was Wheatley’s fifteenth publication, and the fourth in his de Richleau series. It’s still pretty obviously a first book, however.
Three Inquisitive People is not a thriller and there is no action whatsoever. It is a crime novel, and not a very good one at that. It begins with Rex van Ryn, who would rather be out partying with the young set of London in general and Lady Felicity Standish in particular, paying a duty call on his father’s friend, le Duc de Richleau, who has a plush mansion flat, full of rarities and treasures that only the discerning can appreciate, on the first floor. To his surprise, Mr van Ryn finds the Duc a fascinating host, offering superb wines and foods that, again, only the discerning can appreciate (this ‘only the discerning’ bit is not spelt out in the text but is implicit in every word: no plebs required, thank you).
The trouble starts as the two gentleman depart. On the landing they pass a narrow-shouldered man in evening dress. He is a Jew. We know this because Wheatley tells us. We also know it from that great big nose of his, his pendulous lower lip, his habit of saying ‘Ner’ for ‘No’, his bloody big conk (we are going to hear about that nose several times) and because Wheatley can’t stop telling us, not to mention throwing another racially caricatured Jew at us as the man’s wily and shrewd Solicitor.
And this is a hero, because this is Simon Aron, who is also rich – aren’t all Jews? Thank God he wasn’t a bad guy, who knows what description we’d have got.
Our mystery man hustles off downstairs with no more that a second glance, leading M. le Duc and Mr van Ryn to be accosted by a distraught ladysmaid, who has just discovered her mistress, Lady Elinor Shoesmith, to be dead in her bath. Naturally, the maid then faints.
So here we have the body, and here we have two inquisitive people, or one of them with his younger friend in curious tow, wanting to play amateur sleuth, like Lord Peter Wimsey. And of course, if it wasn’t for them…
There’s one bit that’s actually subtle. De Richleau observes how hot the bath is, unbearably so, which rather contradicts the assumption that Lady Shoesmith slipped and cracked her head and drowned whilst unconscious, so he saves the Police considerable misdirection by pointing out that there are actually multiple contusions at the base of the poor lady’s skull: it’s murder.
De Richleau tries to get in on the Police investigation, especially as Rex remembers where he’s seen the young Jew before (right, that’s it, last mention of that word), but is sent away with an appropriately polite-to-the-nobs flea in the ear, so he and Rex go find him at his regular Hotel restaurant, where he is finally named as Simon Aron, financier in a Je…no! Brokerage and very clever, though from this moment on he’s going to drive us all batty by constantly referring to the suggestion he’s the murderer and every other aspect of this situation as ‘a muddle’, or, for variation, ‘a nasty muddle’.
Aron refuses to talk until he can contact his Solicitor the next morning, but that’s a clever put on. In fact he suspects, and the evidence points very clearly to his friend Richard Eaton – private publisher going slowly bankrupt and son of the deceased by her first marriage – as the murderer, in the face of all Simon’s denials that he could even do anything like that. What he’s doing is buying time for his friend to flee the country, an approach the Duc – who holds life to be cheap, unless it’s his own – applauds. Incidentally, once Richard is told that his mother – that’s mother, just to make it clear – is not only dead but has been brutally murdered, he shows all the emotion of a frozen turnip about his loss (well, dammit, think of what he inherits, as he was in financial schtuck). These Englishmen.
Thus a three-way friendship forms, to prove Richard Eaton innocent, which of course he is, the real murderer being Sir Gideon Shoesmith, spouse. That’s about it, apart from an unpleasant scene with a male prostitute who’s caricatured in the nastiest way possible as a blackmailing, smirking queen, which adds homophobia to the list of nastinesses. Oh, but not quite.
You see, Rex and Lady Felicity are both members of the brittle set, bright young things, drinking cocktails and hopping in and out of bed. They’re fond of each other and, whilst it’s not made explicit, she quite obviously surrenders her modesty to him. In fact she’s quite fond of him, and wants him to marry her, at which point Rex’s ardour cools more than somewhat. It wouldn’t work, it would all go sour within a couple of years, they’d get divorced, let’s not spoil this happy time I’ve had removing your delicate knickers.
But Lady Felicity loves him, actually loves him, and will brave that narrow future just to have had it as a present. So Rexy baby, that upright pillar of society, tells the fair lady that he’s got a secret wife back in the States. The impact is devastating: he has made her feel unbearably cheap, that she has slept with a married man. Angry and distraught, she loses control, crashes the car she is driving and causes herself fatal wounds, though not so immediately fatal that Rex can’t whip up a wedding overnight, thanks to Simon racing up to London and organising a luxury but bed-ridden do for them.
It’s ghastly. It demonstrates a mean streak, a selfish callousness in one of our heroes, a cavalier attitude that leads directly to the death of a woman who loves him. Add to that Tanith in The Devil Rides Out, the girl with the life-line in her palm that you couldn’t wrap round a matchstick, and we are very much being exposed to Wheatley’s attitude to women, which is that they’re basically disposable. Gross.

The Second Seal

The other book in the bundle was The Second Seal, a much longer, more serious book. Though it’s chronologically the last of the three books Wheatley wrote delving into de Richleau’s past, it was the first to do so. It was published in 1950, Wheatley’s twenty-eighth novel and seventh in the de Richleau series.
This is probably the best by some margin of this brief re-read, being a historical novel whose appeal, even now, lies in how it is not so far in our past as to be abstruse or of purely historical interest. The title comes from the Book of Revelations, and the story covers a period of approximately six months in 1914, dealing with the events leading up to the precipitation of the Great War, the First World War, and the first phase of that conflict, when it might really have been over by Christmas instead of becoming the long, drawn-out, blood-draining stalemate that was the most destructive conflict of all time, because not only did it kill millions of combatants, it killed a world that had lasted centuries and even if Dennis Wheatley says so, would have been to the betterment of all of us had it continued to live.
The story starts with the arrival of the Duc de Richleau in London. He is in his mid-thirties, a professional soldier who has been employed by armies as widespread as South America and, more recently, the humbled Turkish Army of the First and Second Balkan Wars. He’s here because, having had private information from a Serbian enemy who is the chief of the secret society the Black Hand, he knows that Serbia are spoiling for a fight against the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and that, due to the entangling commitments of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, if that happens, all of Europe is likely to be drawn in, as we know from our history was exactly what happened.
The Duc is here because he wants a commission in the British Army. After being exiled from France he became a British citizen and wishes to serve his adopted country with his military skills. Of course his first engagement in London is at a costumed ball where he has two significant encounters. The first is with a young, attractive woman in her mid-twenties to whom he plays court, teasing her almost to distraction. She seems to be simultaneously enjoying his attentions and seeking him to push him away. It all comes to a head when she unmasks, assuming that her face is so well known that the Duc will understand just how impossible things are, except that as he’s only just got to London and can’t tell her apart from any well-dressed Society beauty, he just snogs her. And she faints.
This is because, unbeknownst to the Duc, she is the Princess Ilona Theresa, grand-daughter to the Emperor Josef of Austria-Hungary and she’s never been kissed before!
De Richleau is deeply in the brown stuff here but is rescued by a British Minister going by the name of Mr Marlborough (any resemblance to Winston Churchill…) and the supposedly brainless figure of ex-Army man Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust, moonlighting from Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust series, who smooth things over, keep de Richleau from being barred from London for his lese-majestie, hear his Serbian information with great interest and press-gang him into the distasteful role that a true gentleman must despise, namely a spy in Serbia trying to find out just what they plan to do to start a war.
Since de Richleau is in a unique position to potentially avert the war from happening, he finds himself unable to refuse the task, and indeed will come to think it his unrefusable duty, even as he fails to prevent the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but he does prove essential to weakening the German invasion of France under the infamous Schlieffen Plan (which I’d done at School, in History) and persuading the French to attack at the moment that prevents the invasion succeeding.
That sounds quite simple, though Wheatley takes up a good two-thirds of the book’s 512 pages in paperback to say much the same, but then he is going into detail. The detail is very interesting, pertaining as it does to how our world was directly shaped, though some of the military manoeuvres on the much-less well-known Eastern Front can be a bit much, but this contributes to the book’s solidarity. De Richleau goes through all this leaping from peril to peril like a latter-day Harry Flashman without anything like the fun, and quite a way before the end it starts to feel as if Wheatley is throwing his man up against obstacle after obstacle just to spin things out even further.
What’s less satisfying is that the other third of the book is taken up with that other encounter, namely the Princess Ilona. To keep things concise, basically, even though all hopes of marriage, or even putting paid to the chestnut-haired beauty’s virginity are so far out of the question they may as well be orbiting the as-yet undiscovered Pluto, the pair have only gone and fallen in love and take risk after risk after risk for stolen meetings and, as they get bolder, stolen kisses (Ilona has clearly decided that they’re too much fun to keep fainting every time de Richleau gets his mouth on hers).
This course of events gets tangled up with the war story so much that it probably adds up to a quarter of the book’s length. But this wouldn’t be Wheatley if there wasn’t a bit of cheap melodrama thrown in there, not to mention the traditional ensuring that the decks can be swept clean for the next one, for Ilona is revealed to be ill. And it’s consumption. And she’s going to die.
All of this is drawn together to provide an ending that’s on one level a decent stinger but on another a cop-out approximating to a deus ex machina. De Richleau has illegally entered Austria for one last declaration of love to his dying woman. He’s wanted as a spy and a murderer, not to mention a bicycle-thief and even though he gets to Ilona she can’t keep him out of the hands of the Intelligence Branch, nor from the attentions of the Firing Squad. But, altogether now, YES, SHE CAN! You need the Emperor’s written permission to arrest a member of the Royal Family (oh yes, absolute monarchies are so much better than democracies) and they’re not going to get that from Vienna before that afternoon when the Princess goes into self-exile in neutral Switzerland that afternoon, together with her husband…
I confess that, now as then, I was curious as to what happened to M. le Duc between his second (?) marriage in 1914 and his longstanding but idle residency in London, alone and without any mention of any wives, in 1933. That was twenty years Wheatley chose not to bother with, for good or bad reason.
These books may not have been intended to be re-read but I think I’m glad to have re-discovered The Second Seal. It’s full of the usual Wheatley-being-Wheatley, and the prose still leaves a lot to be desired, including brevity, lack of. And were it not for the fact others whose opinions I take more seriously have spoken in glowing terms of the graceful, artistic and aesthetic qualities of that world swept away by the War of 1914 to 1918, I might look askance as his regrets over its despatch, and wonder aloud if it really was all that bloody brilliant for the proletariat.
But it is a sop to my embarrassed recollections of having been so avid a fan fifty years back to see proof that, in some respects, Wheatley could deliver in a way that demanded some praise.
Next up, an appraisal.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – Part 3 – ‘The Prisoner in the Mask’


At short notice, indeed without barely any forethought whatsoever, I have decided to add another instalment to this short series of post on Dennis Wheatley. Whether it was wise or not to do so is another matter on which I shall have to give you my conclusion at the other end.
It began as an exchange of e-mails with Garth Groombridge over last week’s post about The Devil Rides Out, and Garth’s comments about M. le Duc de Richleau as a French Monarchist. The story of that part of the Duc’s career belonged to the 1890s set The Prisoner in the Mask. This was the one that started it off, the book I remembered seeing my late Dad reading one night at Brigham Street. I suddenly realised that I had read that book before The Devil Rides Out: it was almost certainly the first Wheatley I ever read, because he’d read it.
And on impulse I turned to eBay, just to see if anyone was offering a copy of The Prisoner in the Mask with that cover, that Arrow paperback cover, and if they did I would consider buying it. Unbelievably, the first ‘lot’ to appear was that very book, along with two other de Richleau novels of the same vintage. Despite my better judgement, I bought them, hoping they would arrive in time for me to read and write about The Prisoner in the Mask. Which they did.
What has to be remembered about The Prisoner in the Mask is that whilst it is about de Richleau’s early career, this is not an early book. Almost twenty years have gone by since The Devil Rides Out. No less than twenty-eight more novels have been published between that and this. We are no longer dealing with a writer who can in any way be described as fresh.
The book must have been fairly new in Dad’s hands. It was originally published in 1957, the eighth of eleven in de Richlieu’s series, and second to delve into his history prior to his debut in The Forbidden Territory. It was the earliest story in de Richleau’s life. In fact, it’s so early in his career that he’s not even le Duc de Richleau, but rather le Comte de Quesnoy.
Armand is not yet the Duc de Richleau. That status belonged to his father, who was following his family’s policy, since the days of the Revolution a century before, of exile from their homeland, in disgust at the ruin of the country where once they were aristocrats of the highest degree. As far as the de Richleaus were concerned, they were still la crème de la crème and as far as this de Richleau was concerned, France was no longer worthy of them and never again would be.
Which was awkward because he was then entertaining a delegation wanting him to return as King of France.
This was of interest to young de Quesnoy, who is de Quesnoy because he is not yet de Richleau, just as Charles Mountbatten-Windsor is Prince of Wales because he is not King of England. De Quesnoy quite likes the idea of the ostentatious displays he’d be able to put on as Dauphin, the opportunity to command Brigades in War and get thousands of men slaughtered not to mention all the women queuing up to get some of the Royal Prerogative.
However, more immediately, de Quesnoy is far more concerned with his plan to slip away and get off with the beautiful Angela Syveton, the young English wife of politician Gabriel, who wouldn’t normally get his bourgeois arse through the door. But Angela, though no longer a virgin, does not want to have sex with de Quesnoy, not now, not ever. She has her reasons, and they are not only moral ones. But she is to get verbally spanked for her temerity in wanting to run her own life in this respect.
Wheatley was not known for confining his own relationships to the marital bed so it’s hardly surprising that his characters urges are all that matter. De Quesnoy doesn’t get what he’s after and makes his disappointment plain with a cutting remark about wishing there was time to show the beauteous Angela his mother’s dolls house. Wheatley admits he’s got Angela completely wrong but still allows him to justify his juvenile retort to himself by completely ignoring the fact that Angela’s own mother has sold her into marriage without the least notion that love has a physical side, and that she has been raped brutally and regularly. But it’s still her fault for not buckling down to her only real role in life, which is to let him fuck her.
I’d have been no older than sixteen at most when I first read this. I hope to God I didn’t take any part of that seriously.
But in terms of story, that’s about all we get for nigh on 200 pages. The rest of it is about de Quesnoy defying his father to enlist in officer-training in the French Army, progress in his chosen trade, still try it on with Angela, who’s been waiting for a chance to pay him back in a most appropriate way, but comes to regret – of course – sending him an enthusiastic mistress for the next year. The rest of it is politics, politics, politics and politics. Wheatley spends numerous pages, in fact an overwhelming majority of them explaining French history up to the 1890s, French history during the 1890s and the Dreyfus Affair.
It would no doubt be interesting if set out in a history book, and I’m sure a Franco-centric Robert Neill could have worked wonders with it but the sheer amount of it is an overload the book doesn’t need, and that’s compounded by Wheatley’s obvious political bias. According to him, France in this period is known internationally as ‘The Slut’, presumably in the way that Turkey was known as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, although they never mentioned that term in my History A Level course.
No, according to Wheatley, only the Right, the clerics, the politicians, are clean, decent and honourable, whilst the Left, of whatever stripe, are venal, disreputable and dedicated to the destruction of France. So, no bias in there.
Six years are chopped out, just at the very moment Angela has decided to drop her knickers for de Quesnoy, but this enables to learn all sorts of magic in Madagascar, that will serve him well in The Devil Rides Out. Then he gets brought into the Monarchist plot to raise young Francois, Duc de Vendome, to his installation as Francois le Troisieme.
Only now does the book begin to work. There is a slow but confident build up, de Quesnoy manipulating de Vendome to allow himself to be put forward, good, strong detail, intrigue and interplay. Angela becomes the boy’s mistress as a means to enable Wheatley to prolong the agony of their eventual shag which is now on both their minds, and then suddenly the roof falls in. The conspiracy is betrayed, the Police raid, de Vendome is captured and de Quesnoy framed for murder, and Wheatley starts stealing from the classics.
First, in homage to Dumas, de Vendome is to be transported in a mask, a hideous, running, inhuman, inverted bucket-shaped thing, then, a la Sydney Carton, de Quesnoy changes places with him and gets shipped off to Devil’s Island. Hearts and hopes sink like a stone but never fear, improbability is at hand. De Quesnoy’s arrival coincides with the presence of a yacht on a tourist trip to sightsee the infamous island (no, I don’t believe it either) and he manages to get away, swim to it and throw himself under the protection of its owner, an American businessman with certain similar mannerisms and ways of talking.
This is where the spirit of Roy Thomas is prefigured for this is Channock van Ryn, who becomes the Count’s best friend, the future father of Rex of that name, and before the book is out, de Quesnoy will have guided Channock into marrying Lady Fiona Mackintosh, the mother of the child.
But he’s also determined to bring down the Government, that is the President and the War Mninister under whom and at whose command this has been done to him, or would have been done to de Vendome, we’re losing a bit of control here. So de Quesnoy drops into another identity, joins the Freemasons, not the British ones, those nice, charitable people, but the Grand Orient, the real Secret Society of Godless Subversives (Wheatley does not like the Masons but then they’re not aristocrats or monarchists, you know, the only people capable of running a country fairly, decently and honestly: excuse me whilst I laugh until I throw up).
By doing so he gets the goods. He also gets betrayed to the Police, which is convenient in the long run. After all this time, Armand has decided that he loves Angela and wants her to bear the eleventh Duc de Richleau, though the path to wedded bliss is complicated by the minor inconvenience of her husband, Gabriel, not to mention her ongoing and increasingly strained loyalty to him that, by now, is looking only too blatantly like what it is, namely Wheatley spinning things out as long as he can.
You see, Gabriel is broke, and Angela leaving him at this moment, to seek an annulment, will push him under. Why she gives a damn, considering that he was not only her rapist but also tried to pimp her out for his own financial reward is a mystery best left to those with less understanding of the female mind but fortunately Syveton has tried to repair his fortunes by informing on de Quesnoy to the Police, which leads to his committing suicide.
By then, all unawares, Armand and Angela have had the shag of the century and are starting to worry about having to keep their hands off each other whilst the annulment goes through but, hey, Angela the practical one suddenly spots the salient fact: no annulment is required, no divorce: she’s now a widow, wahoo! Let’s get those banns read, darling…
I think by now you might have guessed that I don’t think much of this book, far less than I did of The Devil Rides Out. Truly, it is a lousy book, and whilst some of the blurbs on this old edition hail Angela as one of Wheatley’s most sweet and endearing creations, to me she’s evidence of his lack of interest in women as anything more than a man’s rightful conquest. Mind you, I’m cheating a bit on that call-out, because I know things that are not in this book, namely the abrupt and callous way Wheatley kills la Comptesse de Quesnoy off almost as soon as the sequel starts, mainly to give de Richleau (he inherits in that book) something to do whilst finding another bedmate along the way to to generate the woman known as The Golden Spaniard in the earlier book of that name…
This is more the typical Dennis Wheatley, and the worse for it, especially given the smug self-regard all the aristocrats have for themselves. I will, however, keep it not for its qualities, for they are few, but for the memory of it in my Dad’s hands, at in a chair at Brigham Street, after tea, calm and happy.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – (Part 2 – ‘The Devil Rides Out’)


Devil

Dennis Wheatley’s series of books featuring the Duc de Richleau and his young friends, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aron and Richard Eaton, started with Three Inquisitive People, a murder mystery being investigated by the first three of these disparate figures. It was Wheatley’s first completed novel, but it would end up being held up in favour of the thriller, The Forbidden Territory, featuring the same trio of the Duc, Rex and Simon, and adding Richard, who would end up marrying Marie-Louise, a Russian Princess rescued by these ‘Modern Musketeers’, as Wheatley was wont to term them.
The de Richleau books were far from the only series, and indeed long-running series Wheatley would write. Three Inquisitive People would not be published until 1940, a fourth book in this series if chronologically first (until Wheatley, in later years, split the series by adding stories of de Richleau’s younger life). The Devil Rides Out was Wheatley’s fifth to see print, in December 1934, initiating another of his long-running series.
The novel was the first of Wheatley’s Black Magic books. It was researched thoroughly before it was written, Wheatley learning a great deal from the infamous Aleister Crowley (who gets credited in his works, more than once, as the most evil man in the world: free publicity). Whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing depends very much on your reaction to Crowley, though I have to say that I did always find The Devil Rides Out to feel authentic, rightly or wrongly, and a lot more so than many of Wheatley’s later novels in this stream.
Not only did it seem appropriate to pick this novel out for analysis, given that it set this whole thing off, if I was going to put myself through this I wanted to be reading one of Wheatley’s better works. This rather backfired on me, at first, because The Devil Rides Out is actually quite decent in terms of a gripping, and fast-moving thriller in its opening chapters, perhaps as much as a third of the book. Then it descends into slow-moving stodge which had me glumly wondering just when it would get a move on, an undigestable lump in the middle of the book from which it never really recovers.
A bit of background: M. le Duc, who is in his late fifties, is an aristocrat from a long-lived and very powerful French family who have exiled themselves from France since the Revolution. The Duc, whose given name is Armand, not that that is mentioned in this book (the closest we come to a first name is Marie-Lou’s insistence on calling him Greyeyes, but as a Princess she’s the only one who outranks him), was born and raised in Russia. He is banned from entering France after his involvement in a plot to restore the Monarchy in the 1890s (detailed in the later book The Prisoner in the Mask, the one I recall my Dad reading). He now lives in London with a full staff or servants, not to mention a second set that maintain his place on the river (i.e., the Thames) and regrets not being able to sweep through London in a magnificent carriage pulled by eight horses with as many footmen on the box to attend upon him. He deeply, but not openly regrets that in this decadent age, he is unable to flaunt his superiority in the manner to which he should be entitled. Your heart bleeds for him, really.
His ‘Musketeers’, if you accept the parallel, are all some thirty years younger than him, making de Richleau something of a reverse D’Artagnan, though in Wheatley’s eyes his equivalent was Athos. Rex van Ryn, the obvious Porthos of the group, is a young American, big, broad-shouldered, bouncy and brash, heir to an industrial fortune but without any apparent responsibility to start learning how to take it over when his Dad dies, because of course he’ll be naturally brilliant at it.
The parallels to the other actual Musketeers are far from being so obvious in the case of the other two. Simon Aron is a slim, narrowed shouldered, big-nosed, full-lipped, subtle-minded financier (very rich, of course), who is supposedly Aramis. In case you hadn’t worked it out from the description, Aron is also Jewish. Naturally, being a hero, he’s not subjected to the prejudices of the era, the stereotypical slanders, the general low-grade but universal anti-Semitism. I’ll give Wheatley that but only in this specific instance. Elsewhere in his works he’s every bit as nasty as anyone else. It was a fact of the times, that attitude, there in even the best works of John Buchan, who was as good as they came in the pre-WW2 years.
How these unlikely friends met was not to be explained until Three Inquisitive People was published, but basically it happened because the Duc, Rex and Simon individually started to investigate the murder of Richard Eaton’s mother, of which he had been accused, from their own different motives: I no longer remember why they turned out to be such inseparable friends, or if it was at all plausible.
Richard Eaton, Wheatley’s own candidate for D’Artagnan, was an equally unlikely friend, being completely different from the rest again. Richard’s the Englishman, you see, the true-blue – in all senses – heart of England stock, the landed gentry, easy-going because he has nothing to worry about except maintaining his laurel paths and oaks. Mind you, Richard is the only one who’s married and he’s married exotic blood in the lovely curly-haired petite Russian Princess, Marie-Louise, who in this book is Russian because we’re told she is, but she acts like a born and bred upper class English Lady.
It’s time now to look at the story, If Wheatley has any saving grace it lies in his plots. The Devil Rides Out is constructed on the classic Three Act model, although the stodgy middle Act bogs it down and blurs the transitions to some degree.
Rex van Ryn is in London for the first time in some time. It’s a tradition that the three should dine at the Duc’s home but Simon Aron is missing. de Richleau is concerned as Simon has been unusually distant of late and Rex is happy to join him in calling on their friend even at this late hour, to find out what is going on. The Duc is horrified to find Simon on the cusp of getting involved with Satanists of the worst and ugliest kind. The first Act becomes a tense and fast-moving story of their determination to prevent Simon damning his soul by undergoing Satanic baptism on Walpurgistnacht and, in passing, Rex’s determination to stop the beautiful, enigmatic and exotic Tanith – who believes she will die within the next twelve months and wishes to accumulate power over others whilst she has the time left – from doing the same and getting herself fucked for the first time by the evil Master, Damien Mocata, a defrocked priest.
Naturally, they succeed in both aims, though in Tanith’s case it comes about by her sudden, unmotivated and wholly unconvincing realisation that what she’s doing is Wrong. Alright, the girl’s already fallen in love with Rex – who wouldn’t? What girl doesn’t secretly relish the idea of being kidnapped, browbeaten and ordered about by a big American he-man who she secretly wants to have rape her? – but this abrupt turn to the good, prompted if at all by seeing the Sabbat at close range even though she’s been in the Satanic fold for ages yet, is far from an organic development.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. Tanith is the perfect medium for Mocata, who uses her to focus his spells, whilst Simon is astrologically vital to Mocata’s attempt to locate and possess the Talisman of Set, a potent and evil object whose discovery always causes widespread death and horror: what else did you think caused the Great War? The Talisman of Set is actually the shrivelled, blackened and semi-mummified cock of the Egyptian God Set and will turn out, at the end, to be so potent that you can burn it to ashes in an ordinary coal-fired boiler.
So Simon needs to be kept out of Mocata’s reach for a few days, until the stars pass over. The obvious solution is to take him to Priors Eaton, the not-quite stately home of Richard and Marie Lou, not to mention their golden-haired little girl, Fleur, for refuge. This is where things slow down to a crawl. Richard is the perfect English gentleman, not to mention a close, if slightly lower-stage friend to the worried trio, but he’s going to be a pain in the arse.
Yes, the obligations of English hospitality, not to mention close companionship, demand he take in his friends, but as far as their story goes… We’ve already gone through the whole gamut of scepticism about Black Magic through the medium of the hard-headed Rex, allowing Wheatley to pull out all his research… I’m sorry, de Richleau to draw on all his experience to refute him.
Now we have to go through the whole kit’n’kaboodle all over again, this time with the added dimension of personal pettiness and, dare we say it, incipient alcoholism. Kindly, tolerant Richard is willing to accept the obsessions of his normally sensible friends without entirely concealing his unshakeable opinion that they’ve all gone crackers, but when the Duc insists that, for maximum protection against a master of the Left Hand Path, they need to purify their bodies and sleep within the confines of a precisely drawn pentacle drawn on the library floor, that’s when he really starts to kick back. No alcohol? Seriously, no alcohol? No scotches or brandies? No fine wines from his cellar at an sumptuous evening meal? No roast hams, or roast beef, no venison? No meats of any kind? For one whole day???
You can literally feel the sympathy draining away through your no doubt working class brown boots.
This, and Wheatley’s determination to display every bit of knowledge Aleister Crowley has passed on to him, makes the middle act drag wearily. It’s not helped by a sub plot featuring the lovely Tanith, still determined she’s going to die with twelve months, can’t be avoided, just look where the Life-line on her delicate pink palm stops. Tanith’s down the pub in the village, seeking Rex’s protection, but is it a trap? He’s shot off down there, weakening the Priors Eaton defences, because he’s crazy about her, thinks he’s big enough and ugly enough to protect her against Mocata, and all he accomplishes is to fall asleep and let her be taken anyway.
Thus, having been dulled into submission, we go into the Third Act, which might well be subtitled ‘Midnight in the Pentacle’. First we have to go through another tedious outburst from Richard, treating the whole thing as a rather unsavoury and unfunny practical joke that he’s not going to put up with any more, he’s going to go and have a stonking great glass of wine and hop into a nice, soft, warm bed. Of course he’s being got at by the forces of Evil, and since he’s a reasonable man he’s easily talked out of it by an appeal to the trust he has in de Richleau, but it slows things down at a time when the book really needs to be speeding up.
Now we get to the action. It’s a bit unfair to describe these as the creepies and crawlies, ghoulies and ghosties, but these are definitely the nasties. But there are more subtle attempts as well, Rex’s voice outside the French windows, demanding to be let in, an apparition of little golden-haired Fleur.
And then it gets very serious indeed as Mocata loses patience and sends the Angel of Death to sort them all out, including Simon, despite needing him so much for this bloody ritual. And the Angel, a pale horseman, gallops around the library but the pentacle holds until Richard, rearing back from hooves flashing near his head as any sane person would, knocks a candle over. Instantly, the Angel is inside the pentacle. Which forces the Duc to pull out his ace in the hole, the last two lines of the dreaded Sussama Ritual which cannot and must not be spoken unless the soul itself is in peril of destruction (which may be spoken but which may not be written down).
This is one of those instances where your opinions of Crowley and how accurate, or rather truthful he’s been to Wheatley in the latter’s research, are crucial to the scene, but even though it all felt authentic to me back then, today it comes over as a convenient deus ex machina.
But the story is not yet over. Firstly, Rex – the real Rex – comes knocking on the French windows, carrying the limp body of Tanith in his arms. She is, as you might expect, dead. It’s all about the Three-Fold Law of Return: a curse turned aside by its intended victim rebounds with three times the force against the one sending it, or if he’s using a medium as a vessel…
Then there’s the discovery that whilst everybody’s been holed up in the Library all night, someone has sneaked in and taken little golden-headed Fleur and left a ransom note, demanding Simon in exchange. Simon, naturally, thinks of nothing but surrendering himself to save his friends’ daughter, but the others won’t let him. It’s not about her life, or even foiling discovery of the Talisman, but the fact that nobody trusts Mocata to keep his word and return Fleur anyway, not when there are so many, you should excuse the expression, good things for which the sacrifice of an innocent virgin can be employed. Nevertheless, Simon will sneak out and hand himself over anyway.
But de Richleau and Co. do have a lead and that comes from Tanith herself, or at any rate her spirit, raised from the dead, not unwillingly, by seance and spilling as many beans as she’s got about trailing after Mocata. This takes the gang, including Marie Lou, who will not be left behind, initially to Paris, using Richard’s private plane. By the way, there’s this strange low level mist surrounding Priors Eaton, and the airfield, and indeed the entire flight, which seems to slip out of everybody’s head. If you’re getting the impression that there’s something not entirely kosher about all this, you’re on the right track.
There’s a potential hold-up in Paris as the gang discover Simon, post-ritual. Mocata tips off the Police about the appearance of that hated Royalist de Richleau, but the Musketeers fight their way out of there, with Simon directing them way out to the Balkans, in the same plane under the same imprecise flight experiences, to where Mocata has only just arrived, though as he promptly paralyses all of them, they cannot prevent him finding this super-powerful dick.
So Mocata wins, and unleashes the Angel of Death again and, guess what, de Richleau repeats his unrepeatable deus ex machina. Frustrated, the Angel wheels round, the Three-Fold Law comes into force, his horse kicks Mocata in the head and he falls down, head first on the altar steps. The good guys win, the superpowerful penis goes into the furnace (so what caused the Second World War, then?), Fleur’s rescued and, to no particular surprise to the perceptive reader, suddenly they’re all back in the Library, waking up with none of this bloody dust anywhere, Fleur’s upstairs in bed, Rex is at the French windows carrying in a Tanith who may be limp (possibly because he’s now been shagging her all night) but who’s still alive, and Mocata’s dead body, head down, is found on the steps outside. Wonder how they explained that to the Police? It was all a dream.
And Tanith agrees to marry Rex, which is truly sweet, unless you’ve read the next de Richleau book and know that she’s going to die on him anyway so that he can find a new bird to… romantically pursue.
So it goes, people, so it goes.
In part 3 we’ll take a broader look at Wheatley, his attitudes and approaches.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers (Part 1)


When I was a boy I read boy’s things, books and comics, English and American. When I entered my teens, I still enjoyed reading some of the books I had accumulated but, in the natural run of things, I started to grow out of them. I was reading adult books at school, in English classes, Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte. Not my first choice of reading matter, though I’d already been introduced to the former at home, when my parents bought me a copy of A Christmas Carol (actually, I preferred the Mr. Magoo cartoon version). But Enid Blyton’s Famous Five weren’t really cutting it, and nor were The Lone Pine Club, despite the enthusiasm I have lavished upon them in the last few years.

There was a problem. My Dad was ill, and would eventually die when I was still only fourteen. My mother, who was one of only two people to know that his cancer was irreversible, had much on her mind: her husband and the limited time they had left, two children, work. Frustrating as it was to experience, and destructive as it was in several aspects of its application, I can understand her wanting to simplify the pressures on her, one of them being my entering adolescence.

Some of it was being over-protective, but a lot more of it was being repressive. She didn’t want to have to deal with me growing up at the same time as everything else, so she consciously or unconsciously stood in the way of me growing and developing, both during Dad’s illness and after, when we were a diminished family and she solely responsible for maintaining my sister and I.

One of the ways in which this showed was in my reading. I was not encouraged, I was not allowed, to expand the range of my reading. Dad had been an avid book reader and we had a couple of hundred books stacked in the two-shelf bookcase he’d constructed to go all along one wall of the front room, but woe betide me if I wanted to pick up anything that had entertained and interested him: I was a boy, and I was going to stay that way.

So, frustrated at being unable to expand, I would choose occasions when Mam and my sister were out of the house to sneak into the front room, my head below the window sill in case a neighbour saw me, and look at these books. Especially anything that might have anything relating to sex in them, because that was very definitely an area into which my consciousness was not going to be allowed to extend!

Though I read some other books – How to Win Friends and Influence People, something or other by Alastair MacLean, one book by Frank Yerby which didn’t tempt me to read any others – I gravitated towards Dennis Wheatley, the so-called ‘Prince of Thriller Writers’. The only book I actually remember seeing Dad read was Wheatley’s The Prisoner in the Mask, because of the vivid cover to the paperback. He favoured thrillers, and had a dozen or more Wheatley books. That may well be what drew me to try the man. If it wasn’t the first of his books that I actually read, it was certainly a very early choice.

And Wheatley became, for a time, my favourite author. Of course, this was still a secret for some time. But then the problem went away in an easy instant: we were at Burnage Library after school one day, my sister burrowing away industriously and me wandering around looking glum. My mother asked what was up with me. I complained that there was nothing interesting here. Well, why don’t you look in the adult section, she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I looked at her in shock then zoomed over there as if cadging a lift off Dan Dare in Anastasia.

Naturally, the first thing I looked for was any Wheatleys Dad didn’t have. Thus began a spell of five, maybe six years, in which I set out to read every novel he’d ever written. Some we had at home, some I got through the library, the rest were available in paperback in bookshops and newsagents, and I accumulated them. According to Wikipedia, there were 54 in total, and I read them all.

Then I got rid of them all.

Why? A large part of it was that my discovery and reading of The Lord of the Rings between October 1973 to January 1974 transformed my reading interests, turning me towards SF and Fantasy on a near-exclusive basis for the next twenty years. An equally large part of it was that, slowly but inevitably, I started to understand Wheatley’s character, his opinions and belief. It wasn’t as if he made any attempt to conceal his thinking, his books embodied it, he was true blue patriotic, aristocratic (with no real grounds to be) and Conservative with the biggest of Big Cs. I knew all this, yet somehow the real message that lay behind all that only seeped into me very slowly, which was that Wheatley looked down on me. Not merely looked down upon but despised me. It’s the kind of thing that can undermine your relationship with an author.

And the last part of it was that, as I was exposed to stylish, thoughtful, elegant and beautiful writing from a host of sources – not merely SF/Fantasy but such things as Damon Runyan’s short stories about his invented Broadway, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books and Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon Family books and more, to choose three disparate examples – I couldn’t avoid the realisation that Dennis Wheatley’s writing was shit. And by that I mean not its content but the actual words. His dialogue. His descriptions. The actual sentences. He was a completely awful writer.

What brought all this about was a chance comment from my friend and guest poster, Garth Groombridge, who is writing a series on his favourite films and mentioned he was working on the Christopher Lee-starring Hammer adaptation of Wheatley’s most famous novel, The Devil Rides Out, made in 1967 and seen by me in a late night horror showing at my local cinema a decade later.

It was the first time I’d seen a film adaptation of a book I knew well, and it was a telling experience. I knew, intellectually, that film adaptations involved changes to the original, but I was unprepared for the impact of this in practice, particularly changes that seemed to have no logic behind them. The book was part of a series of books featuring the Duc de Richleau and his three young friends, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aron and Richard Eaton, all of whom were much the same age. But the film made Rex into a much older man, a contemporary of the Duc instead of the other two friends, for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. It also radically de-emphasised Simon Aron’s Jewishness, though that might be a bit more understandable thirty years and a World War on.

Garth’s mention of the film triggered my recollection of my days as a Wheatley fan, and that usually ends in the urge to write something about it for this blog, which is why we are here. Usually, when I fixate upon an author, I like to go through all their books, in chronological order, tracing their development. There’s no way I’d doing that with Wheatley! I’d choke on the crap prose if I tried.

But I can’t go ripping into the guy without some kind of contemporary familiarity with his actual writing. So I hunted out a cheap copy of The Devil Rides Out, to hold up as an example for the rest. And that will be the basis of Part 2.

A Marston Baines Appraisal: Malcolm Saville’s Last Series


The Marston Baines series is the fourth (of eight) series of Malcolm Saville books I have now read, and the second that I have approached as a reader in his sixties. The other four series being aimed at younger readers and therefore completely unsuitable unless I suddenly acquire step-grandchildren to read to, it is where I draw the line, and sadly I draw it well below the standard of all the others, even the very weakest of the late Lone Pine Club books.
With the shining exception of my favourite Not Scarlet But Gold, Malcolm Saville’s books of the Sixties and Seventies represent a falling-off of his abilities. The changes in Society throughout the Sixties clearly upset him, undermining in both good and bad ways the principles in which he believed. For the first time, his writing does not reflect the world as it was and he’s not comfortable about that.
Furthermore, there was a demand from publishers and, I shouldn’t be surprised, a sector of his audience that wanted new stories to reflect the new times, and that was something Saville was ultimately unable to do to any effective degree. The number of times his characters proudly proclaim themselves as ‘square’ or even ‘cube’ tells us that.
But twenty years into a very successful career, Saville wanted to change. Like anyone known for a long-running series of books, he wanted to leave these behind. He wanted to be recognised for more serious fiction, fiction that occupied itself with issues of the time and enabled him to deliver warnings about what he feared. He wanted to be known and remembered for something better, and older in audience.
Sadly for him, his concerns may have been genuine, but they were anchored in fear, of the unknown, of what he couldn’t come to terms with. History very rarely turns round and goes back. And successful writers of one form of genre, steeped in its tropes and motifs, find it difficult to discard the habits of twenty years that have served them so well, and which have become ingrained.
Given its debut in 1963, it’s impossible not to see the Marston Baines series as a juvenile version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond as made world-wide success by the Sean Connery-starring films, filtered through Saville’s Christian sensibilities. As such, the series strips out everything that made the James Bond books and their multifarious copycats successful, the violence and especially the sex.
Marston Baines is himself a bachelor. Saville doesn’t use the phrase ‘confirmed bachelor’, thankfully, as that was a contemporary code for homosexual, an idea that was even further beyond the pale than the idea of sex before marriage. Saville is so sterile that the idea of sex between married couples isn’t even allowed to arise.
All the books abound in undergraduate age characters, men and women, their ages for most of the series lying between eighteen and twenty, though by the time of the penultimate book, Baines’ nephew Simon has graduated a year previously, and we must assume his friends from Oxford have all done the same, though no discernible change in their behaviour takes place. Even in 1963, real undergraduates, men and women, would have had a quite powerful interest in sex, but instead characters fall in love during books, especially Simon, only to be fancy free the next time they appear. There is precious little kissing and such as there is, as in the final Caves of Drach scene in White Fire is cut away from very rapidly.
Saville’s inability to compromise his Christian principles was the hindrance that kept Jon and Penny Warrender in the ‘Lone Pine’ books from the engagement that was their due, and here his insistence upon good clean entertainment, without the actuality of death and brutality or the physical attraction of healthy young men and women to each other ensured that the series would never achieve the popularity or respect he sought. An evil organisation that will not act with realistic violence cannot create a genuine sense of danger. A writer who constantly relegates violence to offstage cannot create a grown-up atmosphere.
The overall tone of the series is pitched on a single note. It’s rather like my long-term take on the Daily Mail‘s ethic, that someone, somewhere is enjoying themselves – and it’s got to STOP! In both cases it’s fear that is paramount. Saville is seeing the world changing. He doesn’t like it changing, it is ceasing to be understandable to him. The rigidity of British Society, with its clearly defined social strata is beginning to soften. The ground beneath his feet is no longer the rock-solid thing he has lived upon for so long. Young people are starting to think more for themselves, to turn away from being pressed-out copies of the templates their parents, their elders and betters – especially the latter – and moving towards thoughts, feelings and preoccupations of their own. They’re beginning to experiment with possibilities instead of taking for granted what they have been told.
Inevitably, they will get into ‘bad habits’.
It’s understandable, if not necessarily forgivable in a writer whose work has been directed entirely and successfully to the entertainment of children. And it’s equally understandable but only a little more forgivable in a writer whose stories have always eschewed the remotest shades of grey. Law. Order. Crime. Criminals. There’s never been any difficulty in telling one from the other.
But here Saville is addressing himself to an older audience. Not boys and girls, but young men and young women, but he cannot escape the didactic tone. What’s worse is that he cannot, not for one moment, give his young men and women any credit for thinking or themselves unless they are in total agreement with him. If they disagree, it is because they have been manipulated into doing so, because they have ben brainwashed by sinister organisations, criminal or Chinese, seeking to create anarchy in order to create fascist control, for their own selfish purposes.
No-one believes in anything, unless it’s in their undirected hatred of order and decency. No, I exaggerate slightly: the Antisemitic unreconstructed Nazi in Power of Three believes in his poisonous hatred. But no-one else does.
Saville does his cause(s) down from both directions by refusing to admit the least fraction of validity, by constantly insisting to the very audience he is trying to sell to that they are fools, dupes and idiots, and by paradoxically trivialising everything by insisting that it’s only down to criminal masterminds who can be overthrown by deus ex machina swoops with the Police.
It can’t. The issues that scared him, rightly or wrongly, were genuine changes in societal temperature that could not be wished away by attributing them to Signora Salvatore. They had to be confronted, acknowledged, and argued with. Malcolm Saville steered himself out of his depth. He may have had enough and more than enough of David and Peter, Jon and Penny and the like, trapped by a public demand on a par with that laid upon Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, but not only did the commercial impact of this series diminish with every book, but – and I hate having to say this – the longer he persevered, the more he demolished his own genuine artistic qualities.
Malcolm Saville was simply unable to write a half-decent adult-oriented book. The last six weeks have demonstrated that.
There is still one book in the series to come. Should all go well, GirlsGoneBy will republish it, and I will read it about twelve months from now. By then, the third Jillies book will have been reprinted. I am looking forward to that. I cannot say the same for Marston – Master Spy.

Marst

Next year…