Authors: Dennis Wheatley
Edited by Miranda Vaughan Jones
My darling wife
This, my first historical novel—inspired by ‘Cosey Cott’. which she has done so much to make the smallest stately home—with all my love.
Dennis Wheatley was my grandfather. He only had one child, my father Anthony, from his first marriage to Nancy Robinson. Nancy was the youngest in a large family of ten Robinson children and she had a wonderful zest for life and a gaiety about her that I much admired as a boy brought up in the dull Seventies. Thinking about it now, I suspect that I was drawn to a young Ginny Hewett, a similarly bubbly character, and now my wife of 27 years, because she resembled Nancy in many ways.
As grandparents, Dennis and Nancy were very different. Nancy’s visits would fill the house with laughter and mischievous gossip, while Dennis and his second wife Joan would descend like minor royalty, all children expected to behave. Each held court in their own way but Dennis was the famous one with the famous friends and the famous stories.
There is something of the fantasist in every storyteller, and most novelists writing thrillers see themselves in their heroes. However, only a handful can claim to have been involved in actual daring-do. Dennis saw action both at the Front, in the First World War, and behind a desk in the Second. His involvement informed his writing and his stories, even those based on historical events, held a notable veracity that only the life-experienced novelist can obtain. I think it was this element that added the important plausibility to his writing. This appealed to his legions of readers who were in that middle ground of fiction, not looking for pure fantasy nor dry fact, but something exciting, extraordinary, possible and even probable.
There were three key characters that Dennis created over the years: The Duc de Richleau, Gregory Sallust and Roger Brook. The first de Richleau stories were set in the years between the wars, when Dennis had started writing. Many of the Sallust stories were written in the early days of the Second World War, shortly before Dennis joined the Joint Planning Staff in Whitehall, and Brook was cast in the time of the French Revolution, a period that particularly fascinated him.
He is probably always going to be associated with Black Magic first and foremost, and it’s true that he plugged it hard because sales were always good for those books. However, it’s important to remember that he only wrote eleven Black Magic novels out of more than sixty bestsellers, and readers were just as keen on his other stories. In fact, invariably when I meet people who ask if there is any connection, they tell me that they read ‘all his books’.
Dennis had a full and eventful life, even by the standards of the era he grew up in. He was expelled from Dulwich College and sent to a floating navel run school, HMS Worcester. The conditions on this extraordinary ship were Dickensian. He survived it, and briefly enjoyed London at the pinnacle of the Empire before war was declared and the fun ended. That sort of fun would never be seen again.
He went into business after the First World War, succeeded and failed, and stumbled into writing. It proved to be his calling. Immediate success opened up the opportunity to read and travel, fueling yet more stories and thrilling his growing band of followers.
He had an extraordinary World War II, being one of the first people to be recruited into the select team which dreamed up the deception plans to cover some of the major events of the war such as Operation Torch, Operation Mincemeat and the D-Day landings. Here he became familiar with not only the people at the very top of the war effort, but also a young Commander Ian Fleming, who was later to write the James Bond novels. There are indeed those who have suggested that Gregory Sallust was one of James Bond’s precursors.
The aftermath of the war saw Dennis grow in stature and fame. He settled in his beautiful Georgian house in Lymington surrounded by beautiful things. He knew how to live well, perhaps without regard for his health. He hated exercise, smoked, drank and wrote. Today he would have been bullied by wife and children and friends into giving up these habits and changing his lifestyle, but I’m not sure he would have given in. Maybe like me, he would simply find a quiet place.
Dominic Wheatley, 2013
White-faced and tense, his blue eyes smouldering under their dark lashes, young Roger Brook glared at the older and much sturdier lad who stood grinning at him in the narrow corridor.
‘Give me my cap, Gunston! Come on; give me my cap!’ he demanded angrily.
George Gunston was a broad-shouldered youngster of sixteen with a crop of coarse red curls which grew low down on his forehead, and a round, freckled face. He showed the mortar-board that he had just snatched from Roger’s head provocatively for a moment, then thrust it again behind his back as he began to chant:
‘Bookworm Brook, bookworm Brook. He’s a toady to the ushers, is bookworm Brook.’
‘That’s a lie!’ exclaimed Roger, ‘I don’t toady.’
‘So you give me the lie, do you, you little swot. All right! Come outside and fight.’
Roger strove to control the fear that suddenly made his heart beat faster, passed the tip of his tongue over his dry lips, and muttered: ‘I only said I don’t toady—and I’m not a swot. I’ve simply found that it saves trouble in the long run to do my prep properly and keep my books neat. It’s not my fault that you’re always in hot water because you’re too lazy to do either. Now stop behaving like a second-form kid, and give me back my cap.’
‘If you want it, come and get it.’
For a moment Roger considered the challenge. On two previous occasions, baited beyond endurance by Gunston, who was the bully of his year, he had fought him, and each time received a thorough licking. To fight again was only to
court disaster; yet he must have his mortar-board back, and quickly, as his House Master had just sent for him, and there would be trouble if he did not present himself before ‘Old Toby’ decorously clad in cap and gown.
As they stood there eyeing one another, Roger with the hot, bitter resentment of one who knows himself to be superior in every way to his tormentor, except for physical strength, and George, taking an oaf-like delight in the power that physical strength gave him to humiliate his cleverer class-mate, a jumble of sounds came to them, muted by the thick walls of the one-time Benedictine monastery, that for countless generations had housed Sherborne School in Dorset.
Normally, at this evening hour, the school was hushed while its scholars unwillingly bent their minds to construe the passages of Caesar, Horace or Cicero that they had been set for their prep, but this was the last night of term and the boys were packing to leave next morning for their summer holidays.
Sherborne is a very early foundation, its charter having been granted by Edward VI in 1550; yet there is evidence to show that its roots go much farther back, and that it had its beginnings in the days of St. Aldhelm, who lived in the eighth century.
Already, therefore, on this 28th day of July, in the year 1783, the venerable buildings had known the joyous atmosphere that pervades a school on the last night of term for something like a thousand years.
Such term endings differ little with the passing of the centuries, except in the very gradual change in the clothes worn and the language used by masters, staff and pupils—and such minor points as that, where the boys had once washed down their supper with a draught of mead, they now took strong ale and in less virile times yet to come, would drink plain water. The boys themselves altered not at all, and now that discipline was relaxed they were shouting, playing pranks and throwing their hated lesson books at one another in the exuberance engendered by this eve of freedom. Snatches of song, squeals of mirth and running footsteps penetrated faintly to the secluded corridors in which Gunston had met Roger and seized this last chance to provoke him to a fight that would mean an easy victory.
‘Well! What are you waiting for?’ Gunston sneered.
Roger still hesitated, torn between the urgent necessity to get back his cap and his dread of physical pain. His hatred of Gunston was such that he would have risked a fight if only he could have been certain of landing one good hard blow on his tormentor’s fat, stupid face, but he knew the odds were all against his being able to get in first. Moreover, he was loath to go home to his mother next day with a black eye or a badly cut lip.
It seemed that Gunston had almost read his thoughts, as he said suddenly: ‘So you’re afraid you’ll have a bitten tongue tomorrow night when you drink the health of that old Popish schemer “over the water”, eh?’
The gibe, Roger knew, was directed at his mother, as she was of Scottish parentage, and so obviously suspect of Jacobite sympathies. It was still less than forty years since Bonnie Prince Charlie had had his father, the Old Pretender, proclaimed King in Edinburgh, and civil war had sown bitter discord through the length and breadth of Britain. Gunston’s shot had been fired at random, but it was all the more telling because Roger’s mother did still regard the now elderly Stuart Prince who lived in Rome as her legal sovereign, and, at times, toasted him in silent symbolism by passing her glass of wine over the water in her finger bowl.
Roger’s own vivid imagination also inclined him secretly towards the romantic Stuart cause. The fact that his mother had often told him that he must not prejudice his career by championing the side that had lost in this quarrel of an older generation, but should follow the loyalty of his English father to the Hanoverian line, made no difference. Political hatreds and the persecution resulting from them died hard in those slow-moving times, and Roger knew that he dared not allow the imputation of Jacobitism to pass.
Tensing his slender body he clenched his fists and suddenly struck out at Gunston with a yell of: ‘You dastard! I’ll teach you to speak ill of my family!’