Tuesday 18 January 2011

Guest Post: Dennis Wheatley – Devils, Dossiers, Deception, by Michael Barber

As a follow-up to this Lewes Book Fair post on Dennis Wheatley's The Prisoner in the Mask, I'm once again turning Existential Ennui over to critic Michael Barber. Michael, you'll recall, left a long comment on this post about Alan Williams last year, adding all manner of fascinating titbits, and then, having noted my interest in Kingsley Amis, kindly suggested I might like to post a review he'd written for The Hudson Review of Zachary Leader's Life of Amis. So when Michael, having read my missive on the author of The Devil Rides Out, offered to write something on Wheatley, with whom he'd conducted an interview shortly before Wheatley died, I readily agreed. The results, I think you'll find, are engrossing. The terrible title of this post, I should point out, is mine, not Michael's, so blame me for that. Anyway, over to Michael.

. . . . . . . . . .

Dennis Wheatley, by Michael Barber

In his pithy Journals Anthony Powell described Dennis Wheatley as ‘a relatively intelligent man who wrote more or less conscious drivel’. But like George VI and Goering he regarded himself as a ‘fan’, enlisting Wheatley’s help in the plotting of his Music of Time sequence and admitting that he’d ‘trespassed on your own territory’ in the final volume, which described orgiastic rites like those performed by Wheatley’s Satanists. Powell also revealed that Wheatley was to some extent the inspiration for Valentine Beals, a writer of steamy historical sagas, in his last novel, The Fisher King. 

Wheatley was safely dead by the time Powell’s Journals were published, but I doubt he’d have taken much offense. ‘Cliches are there to be used’, he would say. ‘For me, the story is the thing.’ In fact he was a born storyteller who but for the Slump might never have profited by his gift. After serving as a Gunner Officer in the Great War he joined his father in the family drinks business and in a few years transformed it from a nondescript Mayfair off-licence into a pukka wine-merchants patronised by the gratin. But although a superb salesman Wheatley was an improvident businessman who took no thought for the morrow. So when the years of plenty ended he had no fat to live off and by 1932 had lost the business and was heavily in debt.

It was now that he began to write. In the space of a few months he dashed off several short stories and two novels. The second of these, an adventure story set in Soviet Russia called The Forbidden Territory, put Wheatley firmly and for ever on the map. As he told me when I interviewed him a few months before his death, ‘Luckily for me its publication coincided with the arrest on a spying charge of several British engineers working in Russia. I couldn’t have had a better launch. The book was reprinted seven times in as many weeks.’ More important, it convinced Walter Hutchinson, the most enterprising publisher of his day, that in Dennis Wheatley he had a winner.

Although not given to false modesty Wheatley did acknowledge a heavy debt to Alexandre Dumas the elder. ‘Four of my most famous characters[1], whom I introduced in The Forbidden Territory, are closely based on Dumas’ Musketeers. In fact all my characters owe something to Dumas. They’re none of them goody-goodies. They have their faults, but they’re also very loyal, courageous and patriotic in an old-fashioned, romantic sort of way.’

A short, dapper figure, clad in a silk dressing gown and with the sort of complexion that advertised a lifelong devotion to fine wines, particularly hock, Wheatley was unashamedly nostalgic for Europe before the Fall. By chance, he was present at the last night of the Covent Garden Opera season in July 1914. ‘The cream of Society was there. Wherever you looked there were diamonds and pearls and ribbons and crosses. When the curtain came down it was not just the end of the performance but the end of an era as well.’

But in one respect at least Wheatley was ahead of his time. Not only did he write bestsellers, he devoted enormous energy to promoting them, throwing lavish lunches for gossip columnists and cultivating key members of the bookselling trade like the buyers for circulating libraries and the managers of large station bookstalls. One of the gossip-columnists he schmoozed was Tom Driberg, alias William Hickey, who proved invaluable when Wheatley hit on a new topic. ‘It suddenly struck me that nobody was writing ghost stories or anything like that any more. They seemed to have died out with the Victorians. So I thought, “Well, here’s a new pitch.” And Tom, who’d dabbled in black magic while at Oxford, was able to put me in touch with occultists like Aleister Crowley and Montague Summers, who advised me which books to read and so on.’ Wheatley’s research paid off in spades because with The Devil Rides Out (1935) he established a hold on his readers’ throats that would last for years to come.

Even more original in conception were the four Crime Dossiers that Wheatley concocted with his pal Joe Links[2], elaborate solve-it-yourself mysteries that were hailed fifty years later in the TLS as ‘one of the peaks of intellectual, imaginative and typographical achievement by which …. our civilisation may be judged.’ At the time Walter Hutchinson was distinctly unimpressed, but Wheatley told him that unless he published Murder off Miami, the first dossier[3], he would publish no more Wheatleys. In the event it sold 250,000 copies, was translated into eight languages, and inspired a Fourth leader in the Times. Not only was Wheatley vindicated, but thanks to all the publicity he had become a household name.

Wheatley always said that there were two people who had shaped his life. One was Gordon Eric Gordon-Tombe, the model for his character Gregory Sallust, a raffish, cultivated and amoral crook who came to a bad end – but not before he had tutored callow young Dennis in the way of the world. The other was Wheatley’s second wife, Joan, a well-connected widow who married him when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb and remained his prop and stay till the end. It was she who forged the first link in the chain of events that led to Wheatley’s joining the Joint Planning Staff, the only civilian to be so honoured.

Thanks to her connections Joan got a job in 1940 driving for MI5. Just prior to Dunkirk one of her passengers complained that he had been ordered to think up measures that would galvanise the country against invasion, which wasn’t his thing at all. Joan ‘volunteered’ Dennis for the job, and that very evening he produced a 7000-word paper called Resistance to Invasion. So impressed were the brass-hats by Wheatley’s stimulating and unorthodox suggestions that a few weeks later he was invited to put himself in the German High Command’s shoes and draw up plans for an invasion. Sustained by 200 cigarettes and three magnums of champagne he produced, in 48 hours, a 15,000-word paper that was later found to be uncannily similar to Operation Sea-Lion, the actual German plan.

Wheatley now had the bit between his teeth and in little more than a year wrote half a million words on aspects of the war for a very select audience that included Winston Churchill and the King. In December 1941 he was invited to join a small team responsible for Deception Planning and was attached to the Joint Planning Staff. He was commissioned into the RAFVR and rapidly promoted to Wing Commander. In the next three years he was involved in such well-known deceptions as ‘The Man Who Never Was’ and the ‘Bodyguard of Lies’ fabricated to conceal the time and place of D-Day.

Wheatley left Whitehall in 1944. Because he was ‘stuffed full of secrets’ he had to be very careful what he wrote next. Contemporary spy stories were off-limits lest he unwittingly infringe the Official Secrets Act. He solved the problem by going back 150 years to the Napoleonic Wars, the backdrop for his immensely successful Roger Brook series, which ran to twelve volumes.

Wheatley worked hard and played hard. He sometimes wrote for thirteen hours a day, yet away from his desk he was the most convivial of men who made free of his ample table and cellar. Largely self-educated – his library was as refined as his cellar – he thought that the reason he was so popular was that people got two books for the price of one. ‘A damn good plot, plus plenty of information. So as well as being entertained, they learn something too.’ All this and more is revealed in Phil Baker’s affectionate and encyclopaedic biography, The Devil is a Gentleman. But one mystery remains. Why, despite his meritorious war service, was Wheatley neither honoured nor decorated – except, bizarrely, by the Americans, who gave him their Bronze Star? True, he was an admirer of Mussolini and Franco; but so too were many members of the pre-war Establishment, including Churchill. Perhaps somewhere in the Public Record Office is a minute that reveals why ‘the Prince of Storytellers’ missed out.

[1] The Duke de Richleau, Richard Eaton, Simon Aron and Rex Van Ryn
[2] A furrier who was also an expert on Canaletto.
[3] Wheatley advised buyers of the First Edition to cherish it because it would eventually be worth a lot of money – a somewhat optimistic prediction.


  1. Wow! What an awesome life! Thanks for that overview. I definitely need to read some of his books now.

  2. This story of a life is so fantastic that I was half thinking you made it up. Like when William Boyd created the artist Nat Tate. And then your next post was about a guy who authenticated Hitler's fake diaries and I thought this Wheatley thing was definitely a hoax (but a really good one). And then I got the new issue of the London Review of Books and saw their review of The Devil is a Gentleman and now know better.

  3. I rather like the notion of my having invented Wheatley's life, because that means I'd have either had to convince Michael Barber to go along with the idea, or invent Michael Barber too, seeding him in a couple of prior posts before unveiling the intended fiction. And maybe I did.

  4. Wonderful stuff. I don't know why I haven't come across this blog before, but anyone who has Gavin Lyall's books showing on their shelf must know their onions! I was also fascinated to read the post and comments on Alan Williams. I think Williams belongs to that school of unjustly forgotten British thriller-writers that also includes Joseph Hone and Geoffrey Rose. I particularly like his novels featuring Sammy Ryderbeit.

    I think Phil Baker's book on Dennis Wheatley is a monumental acheivement, and not just because I'm also thanked in the acknowledgements! (Very briefly, he kindly answered some of my questions about Wheatley for an article I wrote about his influence - largely unrecognized - on Ian Fleming, and then mentioned some of my conclusions in passing. If you're interested, you can read that rather long article here: http://www.spywise.net/pdf/March_10/wheatley_declassified.pdf )

    Michael, I found that Powell information fascinating, and must now read your book. Was your interview with Wheatley published anywhere? I'd love to read that, too.

  5. A fascinating post. Thanks for the pointer to this.