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…

A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘The Dagger and The Flame’


Dagger

The Dagger and The Flame is the sixth of Malcolm Saville’s Marston Baines series to appear, and the most recent of GirlsGoneBy’s reprints, the book only coming into my hands a matter of three weeks before this review. As always, I hadn’t previously read the book, which managed only two printings in its original existence and no paperback edition until now. It was first published in 1970, a response to the times in which it was written.
As someone who has been accepted to write a new introduction for GGB’s reprint of Seven White Gates, I read Stephen Bigger’s Introduction with great interest and no little surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever read another Introduction that seeks so determinedly to pick out the book’s bad points and attack them! But it’s not so surprising if the theme of the story is student unrest, and its supposed manipulation by sinister forces, as seen by a Conservative and Christian writer in his late sixties, swimming upstream in an increasingly desperate attempt to keep the world the way it had already ceased to be.
And this was before I even read the book myself.
It starts in decent thriller fashion. We’re reintroduced to Francesca Brindisi, beloved of Patrick Cartwright since Dark Danger, who’s been turning down his proposals – of marriage, of course – whilst she tries to make up her mind that she genuinely loves him and is not merely grateful for how he saved her. She’s in the Dolomites in Northern Italy, for a walking holiday with Pat, as well as Simon Baines and his fiancee, Rosina Conway. All very nice and innocent but owing far less to chance than to the behind the scenes machinations of Uncle Marston and her father, the Count.
Still, what of it? Francesca’s here first, the others are arriving later today and to kill time she’s following the popular path into the mountains known as the Wolf Run, heading for a perfect little pool beneath a waterfall that she remembers from visiting a decade before. All’s glorious until she gets there and finds a body in the pool.
No, he’s not dead though he looks very lifeless. Francesca exhausts herself using all her feeble, weak, girly strength getting him onto dry land, and cutting away one leg of her red slacks as a bandage for the deep cut on his forehead. He is Jan Mencek, a Czech who has seen his father killed in the 1968 Russian invasion, not that he remembers that just yet. All he knows is that he is being hunted, and by people who will kill him if they find him. Francesca helps him hide in the woods, promises to return with her friends but, when she gets back with Pat, Jan has disappeared. And two very unpleasant people are looking for him.
So far, so good, and if it stayed on this level we’d have a good chance of enjoying a decent, indeed almost thrilling thriller. But it isn’t going to stay like that for Chapter 2 is now directly ahead of us. This is the ‘Biggles’ chapter, the one where we go back and find out what it’s all supposed to be about, and what we find out is that it’s going to be a total stone bonker.
The book was written in 1969, though not published until the following year. It’s very much written with Saville looking backwards over his shoulder in fear of the great student unrests of 1968, the Student Riots in Paris and the protests at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. Saville’s against it. He pays lip service to things not being perfect, to there always being things that need improving, but the idea of young people thinking for themselves plainly terrifies him. The idea of them rejecting the bastions of Conservative and Christian thought upon which his own life has been based is plainly so appalling that, at all costs, he must warn young people – the decreasing number who are still reading his Marston Baines books – not to change a single thing about the oppression and repression, the strictures and ‘morals’ (I refuse to give Saville’s ideas the credibility of omitting the inverted commas) by which he has lived and cannot imagine even easing.
In his nephew Simon, now a year out of University and an official Secret Service representative with a cover story at the same publishing company that publishes Marston’s books, he has a slavish disciple. Simon believes in the same things as Marston, God, Queen and Country, also not having sex before you’re married, implausible as that might be six books of ‘philandering’ later. He has to. You see, Marston has been promoted. He’s no longer a Field Agent but an Administrative Officer, whose duties include selecting young Agents for certain jobs. And Simon isn’t getting this assignment unless he parrots Uncle Marston absolutely. It’s so depressing.
Because of course the young people who are following these dangerous paths can’t possibly have come up with these ideas out of their own hearts, minds or consciences. It’s just not possible for them to have looked at what’s around them and concluded that better things than this might be possible. No, it’s all a sinister plot by some devilishly clever organisation, manipulating them into turning against everything that is decent and proper, and it’s all down to those damned heathens, the Red Chinese.
Anarchy, that’s what they’re after, anarchy and the dropping of moral standards. Not just amongst students, but among those older people – some of whom don’t even have long scruffy hair and beards and even wash from time to time – who will soon be their dons, lecturers and teachers, and who will indoctrinate them in thoughts that will lead to the overthrow of the West. And Russia too, incidentally.
That there might be any independence of thought, or sincerity, isn’t allowed to cross Saville’s mind, and neither does the possibility that he might be out to indoctrinate his readers in his own beliefs. It’s one of those irregular verbs: you indoctrinate, I expose to inviolable truths.
Such a lot to condemn in one single chapter, but the shadow of this lies over what, afterwards, actually turns out to be a good thriller. This is practically all we get of Marston himself, who isn’t seen again until the last chapter, after which Simon has very efficiently performed the Marston role, down to organising an entire Dolomite Village to raid and bring down the malicious organisation’s training/brainwashing camp and grab all its documents. Oh, and as a side issue, rescue the kidnapped Rosina.
It’s actually a well-plotted story, provided you can ignore the ludicrously paranoid basis, which you can’t because, like a dog with a bone, Saville cannot leave it alone.
The Rosina thing also forms a strand within the story that is much more rational. We all know that Saville was heavily influenced by Ian Fleming’s James Bond’s books, except for not wanting any of the violence and certainly not the sex. There’s a bit more violence in The Dagger and The Flame, when an elderly couple who have aided Jan and Simon are beaten badly and their home burned to the ground but that’s kept strictly offstage, but in an offputting and stupid moment, one of the dumber baddies shoots and kills an Alsatian dog at close range.
The sex thing though is non-negotiable. Simon loves Rosina and she loves him. They are engaged, but Marston doesn’t approve. Not of Rosina, but rather of Simon bringing her, or anyone, into his life when he has the job he has. The secrets he has to keep, the times he will be away without her knowing his whereabouts or when he will return, or if, the plain fact that his life and his priorities are not his own.
It’s a valid point. Unlike our old friend Jimmy, Marston has dealt with it by becoming completely sexually neuter. Simon has to deal with the issue, but he is fortunate not to have to deal with it on his own. In Rosina he has not just a very beautiful girl to love him, but one who knows what his life is to be, who has had a taste of what it entails for her, and is double-dipped damned determined to marry him anyway. Good for her.
Actually, it’s a very romantic ending. Jan has a girl, Rita, who he’s known all her life, who’s also involved with this sinister organisation. He’s very dubious of her, the way she’s become a total fanatic about it, but she’s actually just pretending, to get close to him. The pair escape together but turn up in the last chapter to announced they’re now married and are going back to Czechoslovakia to fight. Peacefully, of course. Violence never solves anything. Except where it does, of course.
And to complete the hat trick, Francesca, after a heartwarming but naïve and stereotyped speech about how women know far better than men how to achieve peace in the world and that’s to concentrate more on Love, a deeply ironic appeal to the hippy ideals, tells Patrick she’s going to marry him after all.
I’ve been very harsh on this book because its flaws demand it. Despite its good qualities, it is very much the worst of the series to date. It still displays Saville’s old-fashioned chauvinism, with the girls noted continually for their beauty, Rita too. Even where Francesca displays initiative, courage and strength, she has to be undermined by constant statements about how little strength she has and her constant desire for Patrick to appear out of the blue and take the responsibility off her hands.
And, like Stephen Bigger, I really must protest the aesthetic offence of having everyone in the gang constantly call our lovely Italian heroine ‘Fanny’. As pet names goes, there are so much nicer ones to be made out of Francesca, or you might just respect the loveliness of the name in full and leave it like that.
The Dagger and The Flame was published in 1970. Malcolm Saville was slowing down. There would only be eight more novels to come before the end of his career in fiction in 1978, including three final Lone Pine Books, two more Buckinghams, two last Brown Family and the last Marston Baines novel, his penultimate story, preceding the end of the Lone Pine Club and his career entertaining children.
This last book is one of the hardest to find of Saville’s career, and when it has occasionally been available, I’ve yet to see it for less than £300.00. In twelve months time, I expect to see it appear from GirlsGoneBy, at which time I will buy it, read it and blog it.
In the meantime, next week I’ll attempt an appraisal of the series as a whole that doesn’t just repeat the negative comments I’ve already made. Let’s see how hard that’s going to be.

A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Power of Three’


Power

Power of Three, the fifth Marston Baines book, was the fifth in as many years, during which Malcolm Saville had also published two more Lone Pine books and the second of only two standalone novels in his whole career. Baines had dominated Saville’s recent output, but after this it would be three years before the sixth would appear, and another eight thereafter before the final story became his penultimate novel. From this pattern, taken with the failure to sell any paperback editions and the steady diminution of hardback editions, I infer that the series had failed commercially, as well as failing to achieve Saville’s aim of it being the crowning glory of his career. It must have been a terrible disappointment.
The scene on this occasion is once more France, albeit Northern France, the underside of the Brittany peninsula to be exact, and the resort of Carnac. Marston returns to the background, being the last to arrive on the scene, even after the reappearance of Georges Corret, father to Annabelle of The Purple Valley.
There’s almost an excess of romantic relationships going on in this volume. Annabelle has been married for six months to painter Pierre Radan and is running the Studio-Boutique in Carnac, selling mostly Pierre’s paintings and her father’s pottery cats. Charles Hand and Kate Boston are due to arrive for a holiday during which the often-tiresomely flippant Charles has promised to refrain from constantly proposing, though by the end of the book he will and she will, you understand?
Simon, now an Apprentice Secret Service Agent, doesn’t turn up until halfway through, by which time the adventure is in full swing. Though she’s not on hand, and there’s a bit of flim-flammery to be gone through over his former affaire with Annabelle, he’s now engaged to the fair but absent Rosina.
Then there’s Hugh and Miranda, no last name, a young English couple touring on their honeymoon, who twice play deus ex machinas in a rather unsubtle fashion,and lastly, on the side of the devils, there are Maria and Jean, of whom little need be said except that her, presumably reciprocated, love for him has her switch sides at a vital moment.
Thank heaven Marston’s a determined (but not confirmed) bachelor.
The adventure comes when a British Agent of the unlikely name of Henri stumbles into the studio, seeking aid from Annabelle. He proclaims his innocence but is on the run from a pursuer who turns out to be every bit as double-dyed purely evil as any Saville has ever drawn but, on this occasion, justifiably described in such black and white terms. Henri only has time to conceal vital papers meant for Marston’s bosses before running on, but before he can safely retrieve these, he is identified and murdered. Attention focusses on the Radans, who have no idea what they are concealing or that they are concealing anything, a state of ignorance the villains, as usual, refuse to believe. Almost as soon as Charles and Kate arrive, Pierre is decoyed away by offers of extremely lucrative commissions, and disappears.
The papers are a list of names, addresses and occupations, plus duties, of over a hundred people in different countries across the world, all working for a secret organisation called the Power of Three (stupid title). Very shortly, a planned wave of attacks around the world, organised by this group – led by Frenchman Rene Durand, Englishman ‘The Major’ and Italian Signora Salvatore: yes, her again – will cause chaos, radically change the face of Society and make unimaginable profits for this unscrupulous Three. They intend to achieve this by raising a massive wave of Anti-Semitism and Racial Tension.
More so than any other of Saville’s ‘hobbyhorses’, even Satanism, this is an unequivocal Evil. It’s brought home from the very first in personal fashion: Jules, the supposed Police officer pursuing Henri, identifies Pierre for what he has never concealed, as a Jew, and addresses him in unreconstructed and vile Nazi terms that are astonishingly strong for a Malcolm Saville book, and which strike deep.
The Power of Three are a fascist organisation, intent on fuelling racial prejudice to bring down society by turning it into a world of constant war between creeds, religions and nations, a world requiring an elite to take an unreleasable control over it, and in which, it is strongly hinted, the holocaust will be resurrected: you don’t believe they’ll really content themselves with shutting the Jews up in Israel, do you?
The one chance to save the world, to head off this planned rising and to capture and defuse these fanatics, these White Nationalists, these unreconstructed Nazis wanting to vent their personal hatreds, is to get that list into London’s hands. That is, if it can be found, and if it can be recognised for what it is.
Of course that is achieved, once Simon comes on the scene. Marston quickly follows but the list – or rather a list – is recovered and burned by the over-confident Rene Durand. Some standard situations are played out. Annabelle is kidnapped too. The secret revolves around a blue chair, but not the obvious one. The professionals under Marston and Georges take over, police collaborators are removed and a deus ex machina raid as effective as the ones in Dark Danger and White Fire is organised offstage to bring the whole conspiracy down with implausible ease.
And everyone lives happily ever after.
I hate to be critical of Saville over his theme yet again, especially as he believes passionately in equality and acceptance (whilst describing Pierre in stereotypical Jewish terms) but I can’t help but feel that, inadvertently, he undersells the true menace by ascribing it to the machinations of a secret criminal organisation motivated to a large extent by profit.
As Stephen Bigger points out in his Introduction, drawing attention to the unhappy coincidence of the times in which this book has been republished, a criminal organisation is hardly necessary to promote world-wide hatred between people. All that is needed is people to be people, as we see only too clearly.
It’s a point Saville makes himself, with a mixture of hope and despair. You cannot legislate hatred out of people. You have to fight to oppose it at every turn. You have to open up people’s hearts to understanding, acceptance and love. But it is blurred by the necessity to write a thriller, to provide an objective enemy, and to create something which can be and is beaten, creating a climax that the real world will never give you.
The book shows a deficit in editing near the end. Once the list is supposedly recovered near the end – it is, in fact, a fake concocted as such by Simon and is identified as a fake by Rene Durand, who blithely spouts that they have had nothing to worry about all along – the Three note that everyone connected to this debacle have been killed except Elise, the original betrayer who sold it to Henri.
Unfortunately, this is Saville forgetting, and his editor overlooking, that Elise had been stated to have been killed as soon as the list is discovered to have gone missing: the Signora laments that she regrets not getting the opportunity to perform this herself.
And, in amongst the usual atmosphere of complete mistrust between the leaders of this organisation – criminals can never work together, no matter how efficiently they do – there’s the very unusual outcome in a Saville book that, when the raid starts, The Major shoots Durand dead, and then actually commits suicide via a poison pill. That is a startling twist.
Three years would pass until the sixth book would appear, and it would be this year before GirlsGoneBy reprint it. I will read that next.

A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘White Fire’


White

For at least two reasons, White Fire is the Marston Baines book that I find easiest to get on with. The first of these is that it is primarily set upon Mallorca, a place I have been to more often than any other outside of the UK, and of which I have the fondest memories, albeit that this is a Mallorca fifty years before I knew it. The second is that, because the subject for this book is diamond smuggling, there is no hobby-horse for Saville to ride with his usual desperation, though that hobby-horse does get a look-in, around the edges of the story.
And there’s a third reason in that White Fire turns out to be the one Marston Baines I glanced at in a library when I was young, only to hastily put it back on the shelf when I discovered a scene with kissing in it.
Apart from Marston, who has much the best front-of-house appearance to date here, and the ubiquitous Simon, we have only one other young assistant this time, a return for Rosina Conway of Three Towers in Tuscany. The book starts with her, on holiday with her convalescent mother, staying at the Blue Bay Hotel in Palma, as is, it turns out, a familiar thriller writer.
Rosina’s changed. There’s far less of the hysterics of her first appearance, though they’re not dispelled entirely, but overall she’s much more mature, despite the awful situation she’s put into. She’s befriended nine-year old William Yeats, son of rich and over-distracted steelman John Yeats. William is bored and overlooked, his father and Hugo, his private secretary, have no time to pay attention to him but Rosina does.
Except that when she takes him on a coach trip to visit the Caves of Drach (been there! done that!), the lights are unexpectedly switched off, Rosina is grabbed and held back by the woman next to her and by the time the lights go on again, William is gone. It’s as clear a case of kidnapping, and a well-planned one as well. However, practically everyone from Yates on down, via handsome Hugo, thinks she’s making it up (though it doesn’t stop Hugo wanting to take Rosina on a romantic moonlight trip and, no doubt, despatch her knickers to Ibiza by glider).
Rosina’s rather more stable in the middle of this than before, which is pleasing to see. But there’s one aspect in which she’s as she was, and that’s Simon. Despite his having dropped her pretty precipitately, and her recognition that he’s a philanderer, Rosina still loves Simon Baines and, before the end of the book, and in the face of his renewed romantic comments, up to and including Puerto Soller as an ideal place for a honeymoon (it is rather beautiful), she’s simultaneously candid with herself about his unreliability and confessing he is the only man for her.
Ah yes, Simon. Once again he’s answering his Uncle’s summons to somewhere sunny and foreign, delivered in the knowledge that his nephew has behaved shabbily to the fair Rosina, and that she’s on the spot and still besotted. But this is where duty calls, and as Marston already knows Simon is being considered very seriously for the Service, it all has to come together.
Marston’s been sent out to research the background for another thriller because, implausibly, it seems that someone is trying to establish Mallorca as a new centre for diamond-smuggling. More specifically, embedded Service Agent P4, aka half-Spanish Juan Clark, lately working as a waiter at the Blue Bay Hotel, has been missing and not reporting for ten days. Marston, who will have the not-entirely enthusiastic co-operation of the Spanish Police, is to find P4, or what happened to him, and to get a line on who’s behind the smuggling.
On the surface, that’s it. We’re talking criminal enterprise, not threat to Britain and, oh yes, the world. But I said there was a hobbyhorse round the fringes and whilst Saville doesn’t overdo it this time, it’s still there, if not totally expressed. According to Stephen Biggar’s Foreword, quoting from one of the writer’s sons, throughout the Sixties Saville was obsessed with the Chinese Menace. Mao Tse-Tung’s ‘Great Leap Forwards’ was intended to transform China into an industrial country which would overtake England, and industrial diamonds, intrinsic to manufacturing machine parts and armaments, are a vital part of this threat… process.
So disrupting a new source of smuggling would protect Britain from the Yellow Peril.
Nevertheless, the book is superior to its predecessors in letting that motive be intimated early on, rather than declared, and then not pounded into the ground. I suspect a degree of editorial pressure to dial it down. Already, the series was not fulfilling expectations as to commerciality There had been no paperback editions, and there would be none until the GirlsGoneBy reprints over half a century later.
So Marston, both with and without Simon, pursues P4’s whereabouts and what clues he has left to be discovered. First Marston, and then the pair, find themselves in dangerous situations involving a hot-headed motor-cycle rider, Carlos, who goes on to commit the first onstage murder of these books. The problem, which ties into Saville’s approach to the series, is that both are raised as chapter-ending cliffhangers, only for the following chapter to leap elsewhere and the outcome of the risky situation to be described, offhandedly, in retrospect.
Though he’s been summoned to assist his Uncle, Simon spends most of his time supporting Rosina, who’s being treated as the criminal here. Yates holds her responsible for his son’s disappearance. Rosina holds herself responsible but doesn’t sound as if she’s going to sue for damages. Everybody seems to think she knows more than she’s telling but only Simon is able to lead her to the one additional piece of information she can recall that might provide a lead.
But there’s a great deal of the usual frustrating responses. Yates, as many rich people do in fiction, decides that the Police are useless and that they’re not trying because they’ve taken longer than thirty minutes and failed to get William back, not to mention that they haven’t dragged Rosina off in chains to be interrogated. Marston’s supposed to be helping Yates too but, just because he isn’t at Yates’ beck-and-call twenty-four-seven, is written off as useless too, Simon, who hasn’t bowed-and-scraped once is a boor and Hugo tells both of them to get off the island because they’re not wanted.
Whilst Marston tracks down P4 and the nerve centre of the new cutting and polishing industry, Simon takes Rosina off for a day that he wants to solely devote to his own selfish leisure, leading up to a snogging session or four. Swimming and sunbathing is to be the order of things, he thinks, and throughout the book Rosina is in and out of her (colour never specified but I think white, for purity) bathing suit and bathing cap.
But she’s determined to get to the bottom of things by checking the industrial building at Pelacor – a slip of memory for Manacor, did no-one have a map to consult? – where Hugo had been seen sneaking around and then getting deliberately left behind to explore the Caves of Drach and find William.
This all works, against Simon’s will. William has been removed and is saved by P4, offstage, when the conspirators are rounded up by the Police, equally offstage. Simon and Rosina find his half-mad gaoler, force the truth out of him and get him to show them almost all the way out before he pushes them into the underground lake. They’re in no real danger as Marston is at hand but nevertheless Rosina saves them both before bending in for the kiss at which a single-digit version of myself rapidly shut the library copy and went looking for something more his style.
There is an unusual twist to the coda. By now, we know Yates is a successful diamond-smuggler, and that William has been kidnapped to coerce him into selling out his organisation to the new conspirators – who have Hugo working for them – for a pittance. William’s the son of a baddy, who’s been at this operation for something like a decade. As soon as he’s rescued, William disappears with Daddo, not to see Rosina again but, most inexplicable of all, despite his long and serious criminal career, Yates will go free in exchange for returning all his reserves. That’s right, steal for ten years but escape punishment for returning your ill-gotten gains or, more realistically, what’s left of them after ten years spending.
It’s a foreshadowing of Kevin Smith in Strangers at Witchend. Even though William has a seriously offstage mother somewhere, his father can’t go to prison because he’s got a son to look after. Good and evil, Black and White, both become meaningless in the face of the appalling prospect of a broken home.
As for Simon and Rosina, it’s all lovey-dovey. She’ll meet him in Puerto Soller for any reason (so once Sixties freedom can seep in, that’s the dirty weekend sorted: no, seriously, it will never happen, not even with the ring on the right finger).
But I still like the book for Mallorca, places I’ve been and places I love. It’s better than I now have come to expect, but let’s talk more about that at the end.

A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Dark Danger’


Dark

Whilst I’ve found myself at odds, in one degree or other, with Malcolm Saville’s warnings to his audience about threats to his old-fashioned and Conservative (big and small ‘c’s) world view, the text of his third Marston Baines novel is a subject on which most people can agree. The topic here is the spread of Satanism.
Present on this occasion are Patrick Cartwright and Simon Baines, plus a new beautiful girl to fall in love with implausibly quickly, Francesca Brindisi. Indeed, Patrick is the main character this time, in a story split almost equally between Venice, England and Rome.
The scene is set simply. Patrick has been invited to Venice, to the crumbling palazzo of Count Brindisi, a once prominent and still aware scientist. The Count’s fourteen year old son Pietro has fallen behind the curriculum at his English school during convalescence following an operation and Patrick is to tutor him during the summer, the Count being convinced his son has the capacity to follow in his footsteps.
However, Pietro’s eighteen-year-old sister, the beautiful dark-haired Francesca, has been acting very strangely of late, rude, distant, absent, spending too much time with the much older, and sinister, man, Donelli. What’s more, despite the devout Catholicism of all her family, Francesca has stopped attending Mass.
And the Count, twenty-five years earlier, discovered by accident the formula for a very potent nerve gas, only to destroy his notes and records, and deliberately forget the same, in fear of its potential for harm on a wide scale. Already we can see the shape of the plot.
Back in England, Marston Baines is called in to receive a new mission. He is to travel to the Cotswolds and gain the confidence of Max Hoffman, an East German defector whose motives are suspect, who has outlined a private, fearsome criminal organisation for whom he worked but who claims his life is nearly over because he has been cursed. He’s been lodged with a CofE Priest, an elderly man of great knowledge in these areas, and great wisdom, who’s given a hagiographical build-up by Saville and then dropped from the book before midway.
And given that Satanism is introduced as a foe and a rising menace in 1965 Anno Domini, it’s not hard to discern that Francesca has fallen under the influence of Satanists and that she will be used to blackmail the Count into rediscovering his nerve gas formula.
Let’s park the plot for a moment. As I said, the theme is Satanism and Saville weighs into it full and hard, and there’s not much room for argument. There’s a powerfully familiar atmosphere to this book and Stephen Biggar makes plain in the introduction to this GirlsGoneBy edition that Saville was heavily influenced by Dennis Wheatley, and in particular his relatively recent novel, The Satanist.
I have to confess that, when I was much younger and considerably less discerning, I was a great fan of Wheatley (one of my Dad’s favourite writers) and so have read – and vaguely remember – The Satanist and other, better black magic books that pre-date it. Whereas Wheatley claimed to have drawn his knowledge of the subject from not merely research but meetings with the likes of Aleister Crowley, it’s clear that Saville has only read Wheatley.
Nevertheless he’s hot against it. I, on the other hand, am an atheist. I do not believe in God and therefore logically I do not believe in the Devil (and yes, I know the line about the Devil’s greatest trick). But where I don’t believe in God, I am aware that a great many people do, not merely by way of lip service but by deep conviction, and that they genuinely live their lives according to the principles inherent to their belief.
From there it is an unavoidable step, and a microscopic one, to understanding that there are people who worship Satan, and act upon the precepts of that code, and whether or not there is a corporeal Devil doesn’t matter one jot when the belief is the same and the acts are identical. So this time I’m not finding the book undermined by my inability to share Saville’s concern.
Back at the story, we have two strands. On the night Marston arrives at Parson Knott’s rectory to talk to the extremely nervous and distrusting Hoffman, the latter disappears. Marston disappears in the direction of London, to report back to XB, not waiting to even search for the missing man, who is not far away: he’s in the church, sacrificed upon its altar, and the church desecrated.
Instead, Marston is followed by two people on a motorcycle, is ambushed (again far too easily for one of Britain’s top secret agents), bopped on the head with a spanner, seriously injured, and his prized red Mini-Cooper is ditched in a deserted quarry, though with him not in it for some never-explained reason that is actually down to plot-convenience instead of anything else.
Over in Venice, Patrick has been dealing with the rude, uninterested Francesca in the usual Saville manner, that is to say, riding roughshod over what she says, forcing her to accompany him and treating her as a chattel. Of course he finds her beautiful. Everyone does. Even her little brother speaks of her as desirable (which in someone else’s book would be seriously kinky) and wants Patrick to fall in love with her: I say, steady the Buffs, what?
And, just like Kate Boston in The Purple Valley, once things are made plain to her by a stern talking-to, she completely changes her personality, becoming the delightful, happy and quick-to-fall-in-love with her master girl she used to be.
Of course it’s not as simple as that, but it’s not that far away from it that they’re actually social distancing. Patrick wants Simon Baines to come out and join him – Simon, who flirts with everything in a skirt and who Francesca correctly identifies as a philanderer, a characterisation in which Rosina and Annabelle would quickly concur – to play the essentially David Morton role of not immediately accepting things at face value. Marston, who’s seeing the overall plot at least as fast as the reader, wants Simon to go out there too.
He also wants Charles Hand to make up the threesome but, in a show of sensibility, Charles (who’s driving a vintage Rolls Royce for no earthly reason), prefers to shoot off to Provence and the fair Kate Boston.
The kids get their usual instructions about contacts to make and orders to take but by the time Simon arrives, the Count has been decoyed to Rome and kidnapped, Francesca’s frantic and Paolo’s turning into a massive irritant, incapable of sitting still and thinking they’re being fooled all the time and everyone but the fourteen year old is incapable of seeing that. Of course he’s wrong, one hundred percent.
Meanwhile, we get the usual stupid attempts to persuade the Count that he doesn’t know what he’s doing by not trusting the evil Satanist gang. Francesca is kidnapped, is told her father is pretty much senile to get her to co-operate by asking him to give in, at the same time that he’s being told she will be a human sacrifice if he doesn’t pony up the formula and, as is always the way with heavily-guarded secret quarters of worldwide criminal and evil organisations, Simon and Patrick sneak in unseen and rescue the lovely but passive Francesca.
There’s an unintentionally OTT scene where the thirteen heads of this organisation debate current operations whilst simultaneously hating each other, screaming at each other, distrusting each other and generally behaving unrealistically even for genre potboilers. Though Saville is surprisingly subtle in positing the group’s leader, Madame Number Thirteen, as the Signora Salvatore from Three Towers in Tuscany, without identifying her as such.
Finally, there’s a Black Mass taking in place in best Wheatley tradition, until Marston Baines once arrives, deus ex machina, with the Cavalry in the form of the Italian Police, to save the day and wrap everything up.
As I may have made plain, there’s not a lot in this book, in fact there’s practically nothing that isn’t predictable or which falls outside the lines of its genre. And whilst I don’t have any of the reservations I have previously had about Saville’s primary subject, between the air of warmed-over Wheatley and the way in which he lets his passion run away with him, the book actually risks becoming ineffective.
Let us see how things develop in the fourth instalment of the series.