Authors: Dennis Wheatley
Edited by Miranda Vaughan Jones
COLONEL J.H.BEVAN, C.B., M.C.
My dear Johnny
I have long wished to dedicate a book to you, and as this one concerns ‘the old firm’ in which we laboured, laughed and survived many a headache together it seems particularly appropriate; although my writings in these days are, as they say, for amusement only
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 inWhitehall, 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 elevenBlack 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
I am in prison awaiting trial for the murder of my wife’s lover. When I was arrested I had excellent reasons for refraining from telling the truth about the crime. Now they are no longer valid, and by revealing the whole awful story there is just a chance that I may save someone who is very dear to me from ruin and a long term of imprisonment. I have little hope that I shall be believed. My version of what occurred is so utterly fantastic that it is certain to be taken as an attempt by me to show that I am mad. But the doctors have already agreed that I am sane; so for myself I see no escape from the gallows. Nevertheless, I swear by Almighty God that all I am about to dictate into a recording machine is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
My name is Gifford Hillary. In 1949 I became Sir Gifford by inheriting a Baronetcy that had been given to my father for his services in the First World War; but my oldest friends call me Giff. I am forty-two years of age, but people say that I look a good bit younger; perhaps because I am a big muscular chap, broad shouldered, six feet one in my socks, and have always kept myself reasonably fit.
My job is boat building. The Hillarys have been shipwrights for many generations. Some of them helped to build the ships-of-the-line in the Beaulieu River that fought under Nelson at Trafalgar; and my own company of Hillary-Compton and Co. has been established well over a hundred years. Our offices and yards are at Southampton and, apart from the early years of the war, I have worked there ever since I came down from Cambridge. On my father’s death I came into the biggest block of shares held by any individual in the Company, and succeeded him as its Chairman of Directors.
As my mother had predeceased my father, I also inherited
the family mansion, Longshot Hall, Lepe. It is not a very big or pretentious place, but a comfortable late Georgian house with some thirty acres of grounds and really beautiful views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. In 1950, when I married again, I had it done up and took my second wife, Ankaret, to live there.
My first wife, Edith, divorced me in 1943. I had married her against my father’s wishes when I was only twenty-one. By her I have a daughter, Christobel, now aged twenty, and a son, Harold, aged eighteen. Our separation during the early war years put an end to the few interests, other than the children, that had kept Edith and me together; so on my return from India, we agreed to part.
Seeing her again, and the children, a fortnight or so ago in most exceptional circumstances shook me badly. I had always thought of myself as rather a good chap; but many things I learnt during the fateful week before I was arrested have made me wonder if the pace and pressure of modern life, together with my determination to get my own way in anything on which I was really set, have not often caused me to act with almost brutal lack of regard for the well-being of others. Anyhow, it became clear that my family didn’t think me half such a fine fellow as I thought myself; and if I did get off I’d try to—but that is out of the question. Broadmoor for life with criminal lunatics as my companions is the best I can possibly hope for, and all the odds are on my suffering an ignominious death at the end of the hangman’s rope.
A little way back I mentioned that I was away from my firm during the early years of the war. Since we are boat-builders, and particularly as for many years a considerable part of our business has consisted of building small fighting ships for the Admiralty, I could easily have got an exemption. But in 1939 I was only twenty-six and a very fit young man; so I should have found it quite intolerable to remain in an office while most other people of my age were in one of the fighting services.
In view of the family’s long association with the water, the natural thing would have been for me to go into the Navy; but one of my best friends was a test-pilot at Vickers’ works nearby on the Hamble. Owing to him I had become fascinated
with flying, and was myself already in the process of learning to fly. In consequence, I joined the R.A.F.
By the time I got my wings the worst of the Battle of Britain was over, so my squadron was among the first to be sent out as a reinforcement to the Middle East. Then, when the Japs came into the war, it was transferred to India. Shortly afterwards I was shot down and although the physical injuries I sustained were not particularly serious it resulted in my developing a number of infuriating nervous reactions, such as involuntary twitchings of the hands and face. For some months all attempts to rid me of this humiliating disability failed, until an Indian doctor suggested that I should try some of the rudimentary Yoga exercises. I did so, and by working hard at them was soon completely cured.
However, a Medical Board decided that I was not fit to undertake further flying duties, and it seemed to me that I could be of more use to my country back at the boatyards at Southampton than as an administrative officer in the R.A.F. I wrote my father to that effect and he applied to the Air Ministry for my release. It was duly granted and I returned home towards the end of 1943.
I have made this mention of my war-time activities only because they have a definite bearing on my present situation. Strange as it may seem, it was my decision some seventeen years ago to join the R.A.F., rather than to go into the Navy, which has landed me in this cell; for had I not done so I think it most unlikely that Sir Charles would have ever approached me to act as his stalking-horse—or that I should have consented to do so.
And the method by which I cured my disability in India is now the most damning piece of evidence which the prosecution will bring against me when I am taken to Winchester to stand my trial for murder.
I think that is enough about my background; so I will now put on record the extraordinary series of events which has caught me like a wretched fly in a spider’s web from which there is no escape.