Monday, March 31, 2014

Such Power Is Dangerous

Such fame as Dennis Wheatley still possesses is based almost entirely on his “Black Magic” occult thrillers but these books represent only a fraction of his vast output. He wrote  a large number of straight thrillers as well, of which his 1933 novel Such Power Is Dangerous is an early example.

While this book has no occult elements it does have many of the features that Wheatley fans enjoy so much - an over-the-top conspiracy theory, a bizarre and convoluted plot, a healthy dose of paranoia and a set of ludicrously but delightfully excessive villains. And it has another feature familiar to Wheatley aficionados - an intense dislike of much of the modern world.

In this novel Wheatley turns his attention to Hollywood. You would expect that the villains would be Hollywood studio moguls but, surprisingly, Hollywood’s moguls are for the most part the victims of a conspiracy rather than the instigators of one. A wealthy English nobleman with an insatiable lust for power, Lord Gavin Fortescue, is the chief villain. He has come up with a plan to control the entire world film industry. While he is a wealthy man he does not possess the enormous resources that would be needed to take over Hollywood directly. Instead he has come up with a plan based on using other people’s money and his own very considerable skill in manipulation and financial chicanery.

The idea is to form a gigantic combine. If he can persuade six or seven of the major studios to join forces they will be able either to squeeze out the other studios or force them to join. His intention is that the combine will include not just the American studios but also the major British and German studios (the novel was written at a time just before the Nazis came to power when the German film industry was still a very major player). The idea that the combine would need to include British studios was probably largely a matter of patriotic wishful thinking on Wheatley’s part. 

It should be noted that all the studios, moguls and movie stars mentioned in the book are fictitious although a few at least are clearly based on real people. Percy Piplin is obviously Charlie Chaplin while it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out the identity of the real-life counterpart of the British director Titchcock.

Of course a gigantic conspiracy aimed merely at making money would have held little interesting for Wheatley. The actual aim of Lord Gavin’s plot is to gain almost unlimited power. We are told that whoever controls the world film industry will be in a position to brainwash whole populations, which of course in the 1930s would have been quite accurate. That’s the wonderful thing about Wheatley’s fantastically elaborate conspiracy theories - once you get past their sheer outrageousness they do possess a certain plausibility. 

A British starlet named Avril Bamborough gets caught up in these machiavellian machinations. She also gets mixed up with Nelson Druce, the handsome son of a Hollywood studio chief. Druce becomes the implacable enemy of the Combine although at this stage he has no idea of the identity of the prime mover behind it. Avril will find herself caught up in further disturbing complications, including murder. The forces behind the Combine are not in the least unsettled by the regrettable necessity of murdering those who oppose them.

Lord Gavin Fortescue is a rather splendid villain, a man of immense intelligence, but it is a warped and distinctly unhealthy intelligence.

It goes without saying that there’s a good deal of political incorrectness in this novel, although Wheatley has the ability quite often to be politically incorrect in unexpected ways.  Wheatley was an arch-conservative but not always exactly a typical conservative. Wheatley’s deliciously outrageous political incorrectness is of course one of the chief attractions of his work for a certain class of reader, a class in which I certainly include myself.

Such Power Is Dangerous is not top-drawer Wheatley but it is an unusual and undeniably highly entertaining concoction. Warmly recommended.

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