If you mention the name ‘Dennis Wheatley’ to the average man or woman in the street today, the chances are that you will get a blank look, but fifty to eighty years ago it would have been a very different story … Dennis Wheatley was a household name as a bestselling author who had sold over 50 million books worldwide, and who was only outshone by the likes of Agatha Christie.
The reason that his work isn’t very well known these days is probably because through bad luck his books were never filmed by a good director. Hitchcock, who was a friend, actively wanted to film his first book ‘The Forbidden Territory’, but when he changed his production house in the mid 1930s, they had other ideas, so whereas Bond became a household name through the Bond films (and Fleming was also a friend), Wheatley did not receive a similar exposure.
He started off as a wine merchant in the roaring twenties, selling wines to some of the most famous people in the world – Kings, Archdukes, Princes and other celebrities - but when the recession hit in the 1930s, his business virtually went under; and like another celebrity forty years later, Jeffrey Archer, he tried writing a novel as a means of staving off bankruptcy.
His first novel, ‘The Forbidden Territory’ (1933) – a story of how three disparate friends save a fourth from imprisonment in Soviet Russia and discover a missing treasure - was a huge success; it was reprinted seven times in seven weeks, and counted the future King George VI among its admirers. It was followed by over fifty others in the years between 1933 and 1974, of which the most famous was without doubt ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1934), a story of Satanists attempting to use the penis of an ancient Egyptian god to cause a world-wide conflagration. Not bad as it was written a few years before World War II !
It was filmed by Hammer in 1968 with Christopher Lee playing the leading role (which he loved doing), and the book is generally considered one of the finest occult novels to have been written in the twentieth century. In fact a total of nine of his novels had an occult backdrop, and these are collectively known as his ‘Black Magic’ novels.
Almost all the books were best sellers, and while there were plenty of ‘one-off’ novels, he had three sets of principal characters – the delicate but ultra-tough Duke de Richleau, who starred with three of his friends in the two novels mentioned; Gregory Sallust, a tough yet suave secret agent many of whose exploits were written in wartime and used the war as a backdrop (and some experts consider that Sallust was one of the inspirations for James Bond, Fleming being another friend of Wheatley’s); and Roger Brook, a secret agent for British Prime Minister William Pitt the younger in the Napoleonic era.
Wheatley’s life and beliefs are also worthy of interest. Through his ‘Black Magic’ novels, it is widely known that Wheatley had a lifelong belief in reincarnation; but his wartime exploits are stranger than fiction.
At the start of World War II he tried to get into the Ministry of Information, but failed, and so while keen to get into the action, he kept writing novels. But then one day as the battle for Dunkirk was starting, his wife, who was a driver for MI5, had a conversation with her passenger, a Captain Hubert Stringer.
The Captain had been charged with writing a paper about how Britain could best resist German invasion – which was thought by those in-the-know, including many of the General Staff, to be imminent. The Captain was out of ideas, and Mrs Wheatley said ‘Then why don’t you ask my husband ?’
Wheatley was given the task, and in fourteen hours wrote a carefully argued 7,000 word paper. Somewhat to his surprise – or perhaps more likely to his dis-belief – it made its way to the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and he was then asked to act as a one-man ‘think tank’, writing some twenty ‘War Papers’ after which he was commissioned into the RAF not for active service but to work as one of the country’s first ‘Deception Planners’. He was one of the team of two who devised the cover plans for ‘Operation Torch’ – the allied invasion of French North Africa in 1942, and one of the team of seven who came up with the plans for Patton’s phantom ‘First United States Army Group’ (FUSAG), which were devised to (successfully) fool Hitler into thinking that the Allies were going to start the battle to re-claim Europe at the Pas de Calais rather than at Normandy. The work of Wheatley and his colleagues was officially estimated to have held at least 400,000 German troops out of that crucial battle, giving the team an incredible impact on the outcome of the war.
So he is an interesting figure both as a novelist, and also as an important ‘spook’ in World War II.
Best reads – try a few of the Duke de Richleau series (maybe ‘The Forbidden Territory’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘The Golden Spaniard’), one of the Gregory Sallust Series (maybe ‘Come into my Parlour’), and the first of the Roger Brook Series (‘The Launching or Roger Brook’). And if you’re interested in Black Magic, then ‘The Devil Rides Out’, ‘Strange Conflict’ and ‘To The Devil A Daughter’ are among the best.