By MICHAEL CAINES
It's not what I'd imagined I'd be reading in Christmas week – the latest reissue of Dennis Wheatley's first novel, The Forbidden Territory, with this grinning Damien Hirst-a-like on the cover. It's turned out to be fairly suitable entertainment for the season, however, being a ripping yarn (first published in 1933) about a perilous rescue mission into unknown Soviet terrain, that also features plenty of outrageous feasting.
The tone is set from the start, with the Duke de Richleau, an "elderly French exile", sharing a post-prandial Hoyo de Monterrey cigar and a mysterious letter with his young Jewish friend Simon Aron. Next Simon finds himself enchanted by a Russian actress at a party in Hampstead; she consumes "two large plates of some incredible confection, the principal ingredient of which seemed to be cream, with the gusto of a wicked child" and knocks back champagne lashed with Benedictine.
The Hoyos follow our heroes to Moscow, where they are welcomed with some enthusiasm: "Simon . . . ran his fingers lovingly down the fine, dark oily surface of the cigars". The imported cigars, naturally enough, serve as a cover for a smuggled-in pistol. The disappointments of bad food are not allowed to pass without comment. Things get (gastronomically) rougher before they get better, but our heroes can still dream. "Wouldn't mind Ferraro showing me to a table at the Berkeley . . . just at the moment", Simon says, as they head into the frozen depths of the forbidden territory itself.
Such pleasures, Hoyos, mysteries and all, were to become common fare in this particular series of Wheatley books: following this extremely successful debut, he wrote a further ten novels starring Richleau and his associates. In the last one, Gateway to Hell (published in 1970 but set in the mid-1950s), they are still dining on "smoked cods' roe, beaten up with cream and served hot on toast, after being put under the grill, followed by a Bisque d'Homard fortified with sherry, a partridge apiece, stuffed with foie-gras, and an iced orange of very old Madeira" etc. As with James Bond's blow-outs, recently back in the news thanks to a full (and sobering) medical examination, the reader might at first envy all of this fantastic indulgence, before having second, more timid thoughts about its likely effect on the body. It's fortunate for the Duke, an old soldier, that he at least knows "the secret of certain exercises, which relaxed the muscles and relieved their strain" – one of the "many things about the human body" he learnt from a "Japanese manservant".
It's been said that Wheatley's secret agent Gregory Sallust provided Ian Fleming, his sometime colleague in the extraordinary Deception Planning operation during the Second World War, with a model for Bond. Here in Wheatley's first novel, however, a few years before Sallust came on the scene, that crucial motif of indulgence is already present, anticipating the Bond of Casino Royale (1952), Fleming's own first novel, in which the protagonist finds that the trouble is not "how to get enough caviar" but "how to get enough toast with it". Bond has other pleasures, of course, but lacks one that Wheatley gave to the Duke: an interest in literature.
Bond, in Andrew Lycett's words, "never reads much more than Scarne on Cards and the occasional thriller", something that sets him apart from Fleming himself, the founder of The Book Collector. Wheatley, by contrast, in this series at least, has the luxury of dividing the necessary heroic qualities between the Duke, Simon and their usefully burly American friend, Rex Van Ryn. On the Duke, Wheatley bestows, among other things, a magnificently adorned library: "The walls were lined shoulder-high with books, but above them hung lovely old colour-prints, and a number of priceless historical documents and maps". This might be a fantasy, but Wheatley himself, at his death, had accrued a collection of thousands of books that Blackwell's, in Oxford, deemed to be worth cataloguing and selling off. He inscribed a copy of The Forbidden Territory to the bookseller Percy Muir, "my old friend . . . who has put me on to many good books".
And on a long train journey, we are given a clue to the Duke's literary tastes: "They settled themselves comfortably on the wide seats, and the Duke took out Norman Douglas's South Wind, which he was reading for the fourth time". There is much more detail about Wheatley and his characters in Phil Baker's excellent biography, The Devil Is a Gentleman, but Wheatley himself has this much to say about South Wind in the second volume of his memoirs, Officer and Temporary Gentleman, 1914–1919: "This book is a riot of enjoyment for the conscious hedonist; for those who regard the Ten Commandments with indifference; for the truly intelligent who seek only beauty and happiness". These latter phrases don't fit squarely with De Richleau, I admit, but the first part would seem to describe an addict to Hoyos and fine dining pretty well. We usually find him dining in company, but it's easy to imagine him devouring a good book along with a good meal on his own.
The Forbidden Territory is one in an enjoyable trio of books to be reissued recently by Bloomsbury in paperback – while many of the many others have been made available as e-books. (Apparently, they've been edited, although it's not immediately clear what changes to the text, if any, that has entailed.) The other two, The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil, a Daughter come closer to the satanic stereotype for which Wheatley has remained famous, but this one represents another side of his work, pitching somewhere in the wide territory between Fleming and John Buchan. Its wary depictions of Soviet society are also noteworthy, although the anonymous TLS reviewer of 1933 thought the novel would have been better off set somewhere like Anthony Hope's Ruritania; although he "occasionally achieves accurate description of Soviet conditions", there are "obvious errors" of fact that the novel wouldn't otherwise draw attention to.
With regard to Wheatley's style, Ronald Hutton, in his TLS review of The Devil Is a Gentleman, seems to have hit the nail on the head. Although writing was Wheatley's "natural vocation", "In one sense, he did it badly":
"he could never spell properly, had a poor literary style and committed howlers. His editors weeded out most of these, but one story still made Copenhagen the capital of Sweden. What he provided were superb plots, designed to build and release tension expertly, in wave-like patterns. His characters, though stock, were vivid, the settings luxurious and the historical and cultural backgrounds usually carefully researched. He published on an industrial scale, completing two new books per year in the first half of his long career and one thereafter. His experience of business enabled him to excel at marketing them, and though they never earned him honours from the literary world or the nation, they did make him rich. Baker argues plausibly that, in his range of subjects and the associations that his name evoked, Wheatley was the greatest non-literary writer in twentieth-century Britain."
There were certainly awkward patches in my easy holiday reading: for instance, the bemusing scene in which a man in a mask that completely conceals his lips manages both to spit on the floor for dramatic effect and swallow his drink through a slit. It was interesting to discover, then, that Wheatley himself did not regard all his creations as equal. He agrees with the reviewer who says of The Fabulous Valley (one of several books published the year after The Forbidden Territory): "Mr Wheatley should make up his mind whether he is going to write a thriller or a guide-book", and judges Uncharted Seas to be "Not a patch on They Found Atlantis". The Forbidden Territory, however, is "much better" than Three Inquisitive People (an earlier effort not published until later).
This information about Wheatley's self-assessments comes from this website devoted to the author and his works; further examples, probably buried in unique book inscriptions, are sought. Also: any further examples of Wheatley's Christmas cards . . . .