In the middle of the 20th century, Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) was a prolific and popular author of thrillers, best known for writing about the occult. I came across his books, I think, through a holiday job in my local library. There were plenty on the shelves, in the lurid dustjackets his publishers seemed to favour. I must have read quite a few for characters like the Duc de Richleau have stayed in my mind. I soon moved on, however. I am easily scared, and the black magic made me uneasy. The novels are still easily available second-hand or as e-books. But times have changed. How does the ‘Prince of Thriller Writers’ read today?
The Roger Brook books are more ripping yarn than black magic (though the occult does feature briefly) and so, still squeamish, I chose one for my reacquaintance with their creator. Roger Brook is the last of Wheatley’s series heroes. Inevitably well born, handsome, quick-witted and intrepid, he careers around the late 18th and early 19th century world, from Russia to the Caribbean. He spies for William Pitt and his successors, defeats the dastardly schemes of Britain’s enemies, including, of course, the French, and encounters many beautiful women.
The Launching of Roger Brook is the first in a 12-book series. We meet Roger in 1783, aged 15 and on holiday from school. He and his father quarrel and the boy runs away, hoping to prove himself. By accident, he ends up across the Channel. France is almost bankrupt, with most of its people impoverished, its nobility heedless and its king inadequate. Roger stays for four years, getting an education in French, politics, swordsmanship, self-reliance, friendship and love. It is the perfect training for a secret agent and, sure enough, Roger uncovers a plot against Britain’s interests.
Roger has much in common with Dennis Wheatley’s other heroes. In a way, he is the culmination of a lifetime telling stories. As Launching was published in 1947, he may also owe something to World War II. Dennis Wheatley worked on strategies to deceive the enemy, and his experiences perhaps gave him ideas. Incidentally, one of Wheatley’s colleagues was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Roger and James may be brothers from another father.
For Roger’s background, we get a masterly portrayal of 18th century Europe. Dennis Wheatley clearly understood the period of the French Revolution. As France, Britain and other nations all see opportunities to dominate Europe, he explains the complex politics very well. The reader learns why France is so fragile and why unrest in the Netherlands represents a chance to restore national fortunes. I don’t know enough about the period to assess how accurate Wheatley’s interpretation is, but it is very convincing.
Complementing the understanding of the political situation is an appreciation of 18th century society. Again, I cannot be sure, but the presentation is persuasive. There is, for example, the account of a dinner in Roger’s home:
For a first course Lady Marie gave them a dish of perch and trout, another of lobster patties, three fowls broiled, a fore-quarter of lamb, and a fillet of veal roasted with Morella Cherries and truffles. And for a second course, sweetbreads, a green goose roasted and peas, a pigeon pie, apricot tart, cheesecakes, and a trifle. … The meal was good, but by no means pretentious as nine dishes to each course were often served in larger houses and even when alone few of those present ever sat down in their own homes to a dinner of less than a single course of five.The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 3, Kindle edition.
There are duels, and the etiquette governing them, without which no 18th century yarn is complete.
‘… We cannot fight like this. If one of us were killed the other would be taken for murder. If fight we must at least proceed like gentlemen and arrange a proper duel with seconds as witnesses, in the morning.’The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 8, Kindle edition.
‘… I intend to waylay him somewhere, disclose my true status to him, and call on him to fight a duel à outrance. My difficulty is that he may not believe me; and you are the only man in France who can convince him that I am of noble blood.’The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 21, Kindle edition.
The mixing of real and fictional characters helps too. At the dinner mentioned above is Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Roger has just read. The diplomat Talleyrand, one of the few men to serve both the French monarchy and republic, becomes Roger’s friend, and Fouché, later Napoleon’s Minister of Police, an enemy. The hapless and, in this account at least, well-meaning Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attend a grand ball held by Roger’s employer. At one point Roger returns home and briefs Prime Minister William Pitt. The join between fiction and fact is invisible.
There can be too much of a good thing, of course, and this ripping yarn occasionally slows as detail obscures story. Roger’s journey to France, the brothel he is taken to, his adventures with Doctor Fénelon, a duel he fights – they all last a little too long. Perhaps Dennis Wheatley found it hard to omit any research, so fascinating was it. Or there may be a twist too many in the plot, as for example when Roger meets someone quite unexpected, which results in a couple of frantic chapters.
The unrestrained prose sometimes gets in the way too:
‘… You’re wondrous beautiful, and if I feel not love for you I know not what it is. Your kisses fire me as naught else has ever done, and I would give my life to protect your happiness.’
‘Nay, sweet Roger. ‘Tis you who are being foolish now, and we are pledged to something far more lasting than a summer’s passion, Kiss me now and go. May God protect you.’
Once more her soft arms were round his neck and their mouths crushed together. Then she broke from him and, stifling a sob, turned away.The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 5, Kindle edition.
If this were all, we could still enjoy the ripping yarn told by a gifted storyteller. What makes that difficult today is the dated attitudes in the novel.
There is class. Britain is presented as a perfect society, with hard-working labouring classes and a responsible aristocracy, co-operating for the good of the country and each other. This is in comparison to France, whose peasants, Roger thinks, live ‘like animals in their miserable, broken-down cottages’ (The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 10, Kindle edition), while their extravagant betters are at court. The implication is that France would be much better if it were like Britain. French society was heading for disaster, but it clearly never occurs to Roger that any hierarchical society in which everyone has a fixed place might not be so perfect after all, at least for the people at the bottom.
Then there is the matter of empire. The European countries all want overseas territories, to make their fortunes and to bring prestige and power.
The loss of our oldest colonies in the Americas has been more than compensated for in the last decades by our gains in Canada and India and the great new lands that Captain Cook has opened up to us … Britain has now become an Imperial Power unrivalled since the days of Rome … The far-flung bases over which now fly the flag of the Union gives us a stranglehold upon [French] commerce. They know they must break that hold or lose the leadership of Europe and degenerate into a second-class Power …The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 2, Kindle edition.
No thought here for the people already living in ‘Canada, India and the great new lands’.
Linked to both class and empire is race. Slavery is a matter of fact. The Comte de Caylus
… came from an ancient family and possessed estates in both Brittany and the French West Indies. His revenues from his slave plantations in Martinique and Saint Domingue were said to be immense …The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 16, Kindle edition.
Caylus is an important character in the plot. The quotation above goes on: ‘but with [the slave plantations] he had also inherited a dash of black blood’. He and Roger clash, and Roger’s reaction to is horrible. ‘That revolting-looking half-breed,’ he calls him at one point (The Launching of Roger Brook, chapter 17, Kindle edition).
We shouldn’t, of course, assume that the attitudes of a character are also those of the author. However, Roger is never picked up for what he says, and there are similar examples about class, empire and race in his other novels such as the Duc de Richleau series. Dennis Wheatley was known to have strong political views, feeling for example that Clement Attlee’s reforming government, which introduced the welfare state, would destroy Britain and Empire.
Worst of all, the masses came under the immediate influence of the political demagogues who labelled themselves as the ‘representatives of the people’, who held that ‘all men being equal’ all power should be vested in the majority rather than in the intelligent minority, as had been the case in the past.Letter to Posterity, 1947.
Almost 50 years after reading Dennis Wheatley for the first time, I don’t think I will take his books up again. There is much to enjoy in them, but they make uncomfortable reading today.
Thanks to Reading 1900-1950 book group member Sophie Hylands for bringing the Letter to Posterity to our attention.