Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dennis Wheatley’s Contraband

Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) achieved his greatest lasting fame with his Black Magic occult thrillers but they were a comparatively small part of his total output. He wrote in a number of genres, including science fiction and historical thrillers, but a very large part of his work consisted of pure thrillers, including Contraband (the second of the eleven Sallust books and published in 1936).

Wheatley forms an essential link between John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and H. C. McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond spy thrillers of the 20s and the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming which began to dominate the genre in the 50s. Most histories of spy fiction will tell you that Fleming revolutionised the genre by adding generous helpings of sex and graphic violence seasoned with a dash of sadism. This is quite true, but it was Wheatley who took the first steps in that direction. Even in the 30s Wheatley’s books incorporated as much sex and violence as he could get away with, and there is even that very slight hint of sadism. 

There are further significant similarities between the two writers. The opening scenes of Contraband could quite easily have formed the opening of a Bond novel. There is the meeting between the spy hero and a beautiful mysterious and potentially dangerous woman in a casino, there is the emphasis on the world of glamour and money, there are the painstaking descriptions of the trappings of the world of the powerful and wealthy, and the strong suggestion that the hero is a connoisseur of fine food, fine wines and expensive women.

Ian Fleming was a fan of Wheatley’s work and freely acknowledged Wheatley’s influence on the Bond novels.

In Contraband a chance encounter with the beautiful Sabine Szenty in the casino in Deauville puts Gregory Sallust on the trail of smugglers. At least they appear to be smugglers but since this is Wheatley we’re fairly safe in assuming there’s something far more sinister than mere smuggling going on. Scotland Yard is also taking an interest in this case and although Sallust is a patriotic enough Englishman he has his own agenda which does not necessarily coincide with that of the police.

Sabine is up to her ears in this criminal activity but Sallust has fallen for her. This tends to have a slightly unfortunate effect on his judgment. 

Making a reappearance in this tale is Lord Gavin Fortescue, the sinister deformed aristocratic villain of Wheatley’s earlier novel Such Power is Dangerous. And a delightfully malevolent villain he is too.

You might be wondering how Wheatley is going to work the communist menace into material like this but don’t despair - he manages to do so. It’s this angle that makes the book more of a political/spy thriller than a straight crime thriller. Wheatley was somewhat obsessed by this menace and he was astute enough to realise that the most deadly threat is the threat from within, and that this threat was quite likely to come from members of the ruling class. Given that this was the era in which Cambridge University was the KGB’s main recruiting ground Wheatley was (as so often) right on the money.

While this novel does, as indicated earlier, anticipate some of the stylistic signatures of Fleming’s Bond novels in structure it is fairly typical of British thrillers of the interwar period, and while Sallust prefigures Bond in some ways he still has a good deal in common with other thriller heroes of the 20s and 30s like Simon Templar and Norman Conquest. He’s fiercely individualistic and unlike Bond he would never dream of taking orders from anybody.

The book does (like many Wheatley novels) have its clunky moments. There are some lengthy and slightly clumsy expository speeches. On the other hand it also has Wheatley’s virtues - some very well-executed action and suspense scenes, plenty of energy and a hint of outrageousness. 

One of the oddest and most interesting things about Wheatley’s writing was his willingness to utilise the same heroes in books belonging to quite different genres. Gregory Sallust appears in straightforward thrillers such as this one, and in science fiction novels like Black August and occult thrillers such as the excellent and very imaginative They Used Dark Forces. Wheatley in fact seemed to have no regard for genre boundaries - his heroes could just as easily find themselves battling criminal masterminds, international spies or the legions of Satan. In fact you could say that Wheatley created a single fictional universe in which all these threats co-existed.

On the whole Contraband is thoroughly enjoyable hokum. Recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment