Century Hutchinson, London, March 1988
Dennis Wheatley discovered he was a story-teller at school – he told me of the joy of realising that he could capture and hold the attention of the others in his dormitory, and I can well understand it. He later became, briefly, a naval cadet; for some four years a soldier in the 1914-18 War, and then a wine merchant. This he might well have remained for the rest of his life since, after a few years, his father died and he inherited a modestly successful West-End shop which dealt in his favourite commodity and left him with sufficient leisure to enjoy his favourite occupation, which was reading. However, when approaching middle age he returned to story-telling and continued telling stories until his death more than forty years later. I would like some of the millions who delighted from his change of course to know something of how it came about and of their debt to me for the part I played, discreditable though I fear it was.
The truth, I suppose, is that nothing would really have prevented Wheatley from exercising his immense talent for story-telling, even if the business he inherited had been the kind where the aristocracy of Mayfair would look in for a glass of wine and advice on the current vintages from the Managing Director. Unfortunately, though, No. 26 South Audley Street was more a beer and mineral water shop which stocked a little mediocre wine and depended for its trade on currying the favour of seedy butlers and housekeepers, who were more concerned with the commission they received than the quality of the wine.
Wheatley has himself told the story of how he set about changing all that.(*) Soon after his father’s death he installed a mahogany-panelled office for himself and a stock of two hundred different liqueurs and a wine list with nothing on it less than thirty years old (and some going back to the eighteenth century). He expanded into the cigar trade and the wholesale trade, supplying restaurants and night-clubs (notoriously bad payers), and characteristically added penurious friends to his so-called staff, for he was the most generous of men. Already aware that the finest stock in London will not sell if nobody knows of its existence, he entertained lavishly – and the more he sold, the more he was owed and the more he owed. His friends, of whom I was one, did nothing to discourage him; on the contrary, we made full use of our membership of ‘the club that never closes’ and 26 South Audley Street became the most congenial of meeting places. In Wheatley’s own words, ‘a good time was had by all’.
It was the Depression, he believed, that brought about the inevitable crash but his competitors, whose friends were more prudent, managed to survive it. One thing we could do was to shield Wheatley from its more painful effects and it was not long before he realised that the wine trade had taught him all he needed to know of business life and he returned to story-telling. Within two years he was on the way to becoming a best-seller. Within four years a chance remark of mine over the divine Wheatley hock at his home in St. John’s Wood (there had been plenty of salvage from No. 26) was taken up and the ‘Crime Dossiers’ were born. After the third one had been published, ‘DENNIS WHEATLEY PRESENTS . . .’ in one-and-a-half-inch lettering had been on every bookstall in the country for three years and he really was a best-seller. Forty or fifty books later he was selling a million copies a year.
How was it done? Modern jargon would call it ‘good marketing of a good product’. Not the Dossiers, which sold on their novelty alone (Wheatley never wanted to be a crime writer and never wrote another detective story). But everything else he wrote showed the gusto and energy that marked his whole life and which, once a book was completed, he devoted to ensuring that it was sold. Wheatley’s son, Anthony, in his foreword to the first new Century edition of The Forbidden Territory has emphasised his father’s insistence on an authentic background. It is true that before writing Wheatley studied the period and country of his characters, and while writing lived with them in both; once done, he was able to forget it all and return to the present until it was time to move a century forward or backward, and rejoin a group of familiar characters he had left to themselves for years.
Nevertheless he was a doer first, a reader and writer afterwards. Between books he liked to go off to distant countries, meeting new people. When the second War came he managed to get himself into uniform and to land the plum of all jobs for the middle-aged, a Royal Air Force representative on the Deception Planning Committee. (He wrote of his envy at seeing me in uniform, but I was seven years his junior and so, unlike him, had missed the 1914-18 War completely.) Years later I suggested to him that I should propose him for membership of the Savile Club where he would meet his fellow authors in an atmosphere conducive to good conversation and reflection. He took the suggestion coolly and spoke of other plans. Eventually he announced that he had become a member of White’s – the club that all the favourite characters of his books would have joined. Like most newly-elected members of a club his first object was to get to the candidates’ book when no one was looking and see his own page. He had had thirty-five supporters: not bad for the Streatham-born son of a shopkeeper he could not help boasting.
Few writers can carry conviction with their tongue in their cheek and Wheatley believed in what he was writing while he was writing it. Moreover he himself had many of the Victorian virtues of some of his characters – he had, after all, been born under Queen Victoria, when patriotism and loyalty were more highly regarded than sophistication and cynicism. ‘I believe you are rather right-wing, Mr Wheatley,’ was Robert Robinson’s opening when interviewing him for television; there was a clear hint that he had a Bulldog Drummond incarnate before him, if not an out-and-out fascist. Wheatley was taken aback. He had written about men and women of almost every race, income, creed and period. ‘Well, I suppose I’m not left-wing,’ was all he could find to answer, but he was irritated and puzzled. You didn’t have to be a fascist to know the difference between Good and Evil.
That difference was the theme of most of his books, however kaleidoscopic the details. If the reader of The Satanist has ever read a Dennis Wheatley he will know, from the moment Barney Sullivan says, ‘I’ll play, Sir’, that he is in for a good, if bumpy, ride. Will the forces of Evil triumph or be overcome? Ah, but I must not divulge the plot.
J.G. Links, life-long friend of the author, 1988
|* Drink and Ink, Hutchinson, 1979|