Authors: Dennis Wheatley
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
Edited by Miranda Vaughan Jones
For His Excellency
In friendship, admiration, and gratitude
for the central theme of this story which
he gave me by telling me about the lost
legions of Cambyses one night in Cairo
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
I entered the Diplomatic Service at the age of twenty-three but was forced to resign before I was twenty-five. In view of the appalling scandal in which I was involved that was inevitable and my foolish conceit, in thinking that I could take on a far older and more experienced man like O'Kieff, undoubtedly led to Carruthers' suicide.
That was all eighteen months ago and I am now in Egypt. Recent events have caused me to feel that the time has come to jot down these notes whenever I have an hour to spare; but whether I shall live to complete them it is impossible to say. Either that devil O'Kieff or Zakri Bey may kill me before I can kill themâas I mean to do if I get half a chanceâyet, even if they get me first, this record may, perhaps, help someone else to settle their account. But I had better start from the beginning.
I was christened Hugo Julian Du Crow Fernhurst, but for the last eighteen months I have been passing under the name of Julian Day; and my home is, or rather was, in Gloucestershire; a lovely old place called Queen's Acres where my uncle, an honest but unimaginative man who figures in the Army List as a Major General (retired) brought me up.
I first met O'Kieff during my last year at Oxford. He came up for a long week-end as the guest of Warburton of Merton. Warburton was not a close friend of mine although I respected his brain, and, as our sets impinged on each other's, could not avoid running into him a certain amount; but he was the fat and flabby type of intellectual and I never liked what I heard of his habits.
Sean O'Kieff is, of course, well known as an occulist; and during his visit Warburton gave a couple of shows in his rooms to which, as I was rather interested in such things, I went with
a few men who knew him better than I did. The first was just a social party but the second was a midnight affair for the purpose of performing certain rituals connected with the Pan cult, into which perhaps it is inadvisable to enter here. Such matters have their unpleasant side and, I am now convinced, are decidedly dangerous, but I was young and curious at the time.
Nothing much really happened, although towards the end of the sitting there was a quite unmistakable smell of goat. It was said that Warburton's room stank of it for days afterwards and as there was no natural explanation whatever of it, this unseen manifestation of the Dark God was quite sufficient to scare most of us.
O'Kieff made himself very pleasant to me on both occasions. In the light of later events it is probable that he knew I was trying for the Diplomatic. All my friends at Oxford were aware of that and everybody prophesied that I would come through my exams with flying colours, as in fact proved to be the case, and he thought, perhaps, that I might be useful to him later on.
However, that is by the way. It was something O'Kieff said to young Bela Lazadok, just as we were restoring ourselves with drinks after that rather shattering sitting, which put me on to the fact that he was dabbling in other things besides the occult. They were speaking in Hungarian and naturally they were not to know that I understood what they were saying. It happens that I have an unusual flair for languages which is doubtless due to my rather mixed ancestry.
I am definitely British as far as nationality and feeling go, but my mother was an Austrian and I owe a great deal to my Austrian grandfather, with whom I have spent all my longer holidays ever since I was old enough to walk. He lost practically everything after the war but they couldn't take his brain or charm or culture from him, or that wonderful something which comes from having inherited the outlook of an Austrian noble in a family that goes back into the mists of time. It was to please him that I really began to read after my father died and the craving for knowledge very soon got hold of me. He was desperately keen, too, that I should acquire as many languages as possible, and those jolly holidays spent in the homes of my foreign relatives were an enormous help. In consequence. I speak French and German as fluently as I do English, and can
carry on a conversation in three or four other languagesâHungarian among them.
âDid you manage to pick up anything worth while about the new machine yesterday?' O'Kieff asked Lazadok.
Now I chanced to know that the Hungarian had been out to the Morris factory the day before and that he was said to show great promise as an engineer; also that the Morris people were experimenting with a new type of tank engine. The question might quite well not have referred to the tanks at all and, unfortunately, I failed to catch Lazadok's reply, but, for what it was worth, I tipped off a friend of mine in Whitehall.
Apparently it was a lucky shot on my part. Lazadok terminated his studies at Oxford somewhat hurriedly a few weeks later and, when I next saw my official friend, I gathered that the Government had intimated that we could no longer extend the hospitality of Britain to the clever young Hungarian. Against O'Kieff no sort of evidence had been forthcoming and as he was a British subject they couldn't very well clear him out. But it was this little passage of arms in my salad days that put me wise to the fact that he was mixed up, to some extent at all events, in the spy business.
That was why, when I met him again nearly two years later in Brussels, which was my first post, I deliberately welcomed his attempts to reopen our acquaintance. I know quite well that it is against the rules for any member of our Diplomatic Service to dabble in counter-espionage but I felt certain that O'Kieff was up to no good, and I was vain enough to think that I could outwit him; so I allowed myself to be dazzled by the prospect of landing a fish that our Secret Service people had so far failed to catch.