Classic Crime

Dennis Wheatley

Dennis Wheatley was born in South London in January 1897. Wheatley is regarded as the master of the Occult novel with such titles as ‘To the Devil a Daughter’ and ‘The Haunting of Toby Jugg’. He wrote many novels across a spectrum of genres from horror/ghost stories to adventure/spy thrillers. Evidently, his series character, Gregory Sallust was lauded as the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

During the First World War, Wheatley was a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery and served in France. He was gassed in Passchendaele and invalided after seeing service in Flanders. After the war, Wheatley managed the family wine merchant business, but in 1931, due to a decline in business he sold the firm and began his writing career.

Wheatley again called on his knowledge in the military during World War II by working at the War Office dealing with secret coordinated military deception plans. Wheatley wrote numerous papers for the War Office, one included the possibility of Britain ever being invaded by enemy forces. Due to his work throughout the war, Wheatley was awarded the U.S. Bronze Star in 1946.

His first published novel arrived in 1933. ‘The Forbidden Territory’ was an immediate success. This debut featured Duke de Richleau, a man in his sixties who was portrayed as an adventurer and someone who was willing to kill if the need arose. Wheatley’s debut was closely followed the next year by another of his well-known novels, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ which also featured de Richleau. This novel was the start of Wheatley’s reign on the subject of Black Magic and nearly eighty years later is still regarded by many as a classic which cemented Wheatley’s role as master of the dark arts novel. ‘The Devil Rides Out’ was made in to a Hammer Horror film featuring Christopher Lee as de Richleau and Charles Gray.

Wheatley wrote several series featuring de Richleau, Gregory Sallust, Julian Day and Roger Brook amongst many others. He chose different timelines and backgrounds, some involving the French Revolution and in the Sallust books, WW2. However, Wheatley would repeatedly return to the issues of the supernatural, Satanism and the Occult. In the 70’s, Wheatley was still selling up to a million copies of his books every year. Even at this late stage of his life he was still very prolific. Dennis Wheatley died in November 1977.

Review: The Forbidden Territory

I have always heard about Dennis Wheatley but never read his books. I can happily say that has now been remedied with the terrific ‘The Forbidden Territory’ which has been re-issued by Bloomsbury.

What I loved is that the Duke de Richleau isn’t a young man. Already he is in his sixties but a nimble sixty-odd year old all the same. Yes, he does have three young sidekicks, Rex, Simon and Richard, but that doesn’t mean that de Richleau is pushed aside or to the back of the queue. No, he is at the front, leading. Not only is Richleau a man of action but of brains as well. The Duke is good with a gun, deadly with a blade and uses cunning, guile and psychological mind games to win the day. Although his fellow ‘musketeers’ are younger and more vital, the Duke is the one they follow. And despite his predicament, the Duke always seems to be well dressed and cuts a dashing figure for a gentleman of his age.

Throughout this book I kept getting whispers of Indiana Jones and amazed that Wheatley had created a version of him about fifty years before the film! The premise of Wheatley’s debut is hidden treasure (hence my link with Indiana Jones). The Duke and his men voyage to Russia to find Rex who had set off to find this treasure but has not been heard from for months. Rumour says Rex was found in the ‘forbidden territory’ and imprisoned. It is now de Richleau’s intention to free his comrade. Wheatley admirably conjures the cold climate of the country as well as the cold suspicion felt by the populace who fear the Ogpu who watch everyone, especially visitors from other countries. I never knew that anyone visiting Russia at that time was given a ‘guide’ and was not expected to go anywhere without them. Wheatley makes it very plain that these people are more than mere guides, perfectly shown when de Richleau and Simon visit an unsavoury bar when they should have been at the theatre. The ‘guides’ plus a few of the Ogpu manage to eventually track them down and they are not best pleased about their ‘guests’ flouting of the rules.

Wheatley’s novel is set during the rule of Stalin when he had implemented his Five Year Plans, introduced work for women as well as the five day week which led to starvation and lack of money. It is a bleak picture that Wheatley paints. There is no black magic here; this is simply a rollicking good adventure story. You do wonder how much four men can take as they appear to fall in to one trap after another. Just as you think they can see the finishing line, someone or something seemed to thwart them and set the crew on a different path of escape. ‘The Forbidden Territory’ is a great, old-fashioned thriller which even today could still translate well to the small screen. I know I have said it before, but I love de Richleau although I am still trying to figure out who could play him. The chosen actor would have to be nimble as well as carry off the aristocratic air of the Duke. ‘The Forbidden Territory’ is about finding hidden treasure – for me, this book has been a hidden treasure for too long and it is good it has finally be found and now on display for all to enjoy!

Dennis Wheatley/Bloomsbury Books

Reviewed by: C.S.

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