Authors: Dennis Wheatley
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #War
V FOR VENGEANCE
Edited by Miranda Vaughan Jones
for my friend
ROLAND LE BRETON
As a small memento of the many pleasant hours we have spent together, and in the hope that we may yet crack some good bottles of wine in France again.
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 Duke 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
Madeleine LavalliÃ¨re stood with drooping shoulders outside the main doorway of the HÃ´pital St. Pierre. She had just said good-bye to the lean, dark-haired Englishman who was going down the steps. As he half-turned to speak to the driver of his taxi she thought again how ill he looked.
Sister Madeleine was a professional nurse, and she had been called four nights before to Gregory Sallust's hotel, where she had found him still suffering acutely from the effects of a deadly poison. He was still not fit to travel; yet there seemed to be a flame in the man which drove him relentlessly to pursue the secret war job upon which she had gathered that he was engaged. It was that alone, she knew, which had determined him to attempt to reach Bordeaux, instead of taking the easier road, like other English people who had been hurrying out of Paris to St. Malo, or Cherbourg and so home.
The stream of refugees had stopped now, and the sunny streets were practically deserted. It was three o'clock on the afternoon of June the 14th, 1940, and at that very moment the Germans were beginning their formal occupation of Paris with a triumphal entry through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-ElysÃ©es.
Gregory stepped into the taxi, and Madeleine half-raised her hand to wave him good-bye; but he did not look back, and as she lowered it again she smiled a little bitterly. She had learnt from his ravings, while delirious, that he was in love with some woman called Erika, and it had piqued Madeleine that he had hardly been conscious of herself. It wasn't that she had actually fallen in love with him, because
she was in love with her own dear Georges, but she was an attractive girlâin fact, so attractive that her good looks rarely failed to arouse the interest of her male patients, and sometimes even proved an embarrassment to herâso it had hurt her vanity just a little that the Englishman had not even appeared to notice her deep blue eyes, dark, silky curls, and full, beautifully curved mouth. In some faint way he resembled Georges, and although she loved Georges very dearly and was entirely faithful to him it was now so many months since she had seen him that she would not have minded a mild flirtation with her late patient, had he shown the least willingness.
She even confessed to herself that for her own peace of mind it was as well that she had not accepted Gregory's offer of a lift in his taxi to Bordeaux. A surge of distress suddenly shook her, and the tears came into her blue eyes as she thought again of the Germans, who at that moment were entering fallen Paris. In these last days events had followed one another so swiftly that it was as yet hardly possible to realise the terrible succession of defeats which had been inflicted upon the Allied Armies and that beautiful Paris now lay at the mercy of her brutal enemies. Madeleine would have fled before them, as half the population of Northern France had already done, had she not known that her invalid mother could not possibly survive such a journey. For her there had been no alternative but to refuse Gregory's offer and remain.
As she began to walk down the steps in front of the hospital she thought again of the shocking tragedy, entirely unconnected with the war, which had brought her there. That morning a lively middle-aged man had arrived to see Gregory at the St. Regis. He had proved to be a Bolshevik General named Stefan Kuporovitch, who, a few months before, had decided to shake the dust of Soviet Russia off his feet and return to Paris, with which he had fallen in love a quarter of a century earlier when he had visited it as a young Czarist officer before the Revolution. The hazards of war and many adventures since had prevented his reaching Paris until that very morning, and he had been as eager as a boy, although the Germans were already at the very gates of the city, to sit
again at one of the marble-topped tables outside a cafÃ© in the Rue Royale and drink his
with a pretty girl.
Gregory had suggested that he should take Madeleine, and she had gone with the Russian to Weber's, where by his gaiety and a succession of champagne cocktails he had for an hour succeeded in taking her mind completely off the awful doom which was so rapidly approaching her beloved city. Then, just as they had been about to return to the St. Regis, Kuporovitch had stepped off the pavement. A passing car had knocked him down, and his skull had been fractured in two places. They had taken him to the St. Pierre; she had fetched Gregory, and they had just heard the doctor's report. It was thought unlikely that Kuporovitch would regain consciousness, and virtually certain that he would be dead before the morning. Before leaving, Gregory had forced several
notes into her hand with the request that she would arrange for his poor friend to receive a decent burial.
Early that day she had not even known of the Russian's existence, but he had proved a friendly person, and the horror of being a witness at close quarters to a fatal accident had shaken her profoundly; so that this personal tragedy added to her intense depression as she walked homewards through the silent, sunny, shuttered streets of stricken Paris.
Madeleine lived with her mother in an apartment on the top floor of a large block in the fashionable Rue St. HonorÃ©. It was not that they were at all well-off, as Madame LavalliÃ¨re had only the small pension of the widow of a minor official in the Ministry of the Interior and Madeleine such money as she could earn by her professional nursing; but Paris differs greatly from London in that in the French capital rentals are not always necessarily high in the smartest districts. Such matters are mainly governed by the floor upon which one lives, and in the great old-fashioned blocks that form the bulk of central Paris the first floors are often offices or luxury apartments inhabited by the very rich, while the top floors of the same buildings are frequently let at very modest rentals.