Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dennis Wheatley's Star of Ill-Omen

Dennis Wheatley was famous for his immensely popular occult thrillers but he write straightforward thrillers as well, and even some science fiction. His science fiction output includes the 1952 novel Star of Ill-Omen.

In 1952 flying saucers were a worldwide sensation and belief in them was at least moderately respectable. Wheatley evidently thought they would make a good subject. Being a thriller writer though he liked secret agent heroes so he made his hero, Kem Lincoln, a British secret agent. In the early 1950s you might expect a British intelligence agent to be assigned to a case involving the threat from the Soviet Union or Communist China but Kem’s latest assignment deals with a different menace altogether - the Argentine nuclear menace!

Argentina’s dictator, General Peron, has begun an ambitious nuclear weapons program which has apparently made significant breakthroughs - breakthroughs that would make nuclear weapons much simpler and much cheaper to produce. Or has he? British Intelligence is inclined to think Peron is bluffing, but on the other hand he might want them to think he is bluffing. In other words, it could be a double bluff. Either way Kem Lincoln has to find out what is actually going on and whether this threat is real or not.

Kem has to infiltrate the home of Colonel Escobar, the man in charge of the general’s atomic weapons facility. While he’s doing that he decides he might as well seduce the colonel’s beautiful young wife Carmen. Before Kem can discover Argentina’s atomic secrets he, Carmen and Colonel Escobar are kidnapped by a flying saucer and taken to Mars!

At this point you might be thinking to yourself if this is a Dennis Wheatley thriller why is there no communist conspiracy? Do not panic. There is indeed a communist conspiracy. The Martians have also kidnapped two Soviet atomic scientists plus an MVD man (the MVD being a predecessor of the KGB). The chief Soviet scientist is actually an ex-Nazi scientist with an implacable hatred of the British that has its roots in the Boer War.

There are certainly Martians, but whether there is a Martian civilisation is another matter. What passes for civilisation on the Red Planet is actually a bit like civilisation in the Soviet Union - highly regimented and not terribly inspiring. In fact it’s pretty grim.

In this book the hero has to thwart both a communist plot and a Martian plot, both equally deadly. 

Kem Lincoln is an interesting hero. Many modern readers will doubtless find him to be rather unattractive. Oddly enough the things that make him most unappealing are the very things that make him such a modern hero. Kem Lincoln is a million miles away from the hearty good sportsmanship of Bulldog Drummond, or the clean-limbed decency of Richard Hannay, or even the cheerful sense of mischief of Simon Templar. Kem Lincoln might be daring and resourceful but he is also sexually promiscuous, breathtakingly ruthless, callous, selfish and entirely lacking in pity. In fact he’s much closer in spirit to James Bond than to Bulldog Drummond but even James Bond seems like an old-fashioned romantic by comparison. With Kem Lincoln Wheatley was (perhaps consciously or perhaps unconsciously) edging towards the modern hero who is more anti-hero than hero.

Wheatley’s concept of Martian society might be grim but it’s quite well thought-out. Of course you have to remember than in 1952 a great deal less was known about Mars than was the case just twenty years later after the first space probes reached the planet. Wheatley based his book more or less on what was known at the time and it’s clear he did quite a bit of research. The famous canals of Mars play an important roe in the book - their existence was not finally disproved until the mid-1960s.

On the whole this is typical Wheatley - the infodumps are rather clumsy, the story-telling is vivid and wildly imaginative and totally outrageous, the tone is politically incorrect to a degree that takes one breath away. On the other hand, and typical of Wheatley, it’s often politically incorrect in unexpected ways while being remarkably modern in equally unexpected ways. 

Star of Ill-Omen is odd but entertaining. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Wheatley's heroes always had a savage side compared to the gentlemen adventurer of his contemporaries from the thirties, but Post War his experience in British intelligence seem to have darkened his view because his heroes are often more ruthless than even Bond (at least the literary one).

    This is not really Wheatley at his best, largely because he never seems comfortable writing about the sex and all the running around nude on Mars now reads as rather juvenile rather than sexy. It does build up to a slam bang ending though by any standard.

    For better examples of Wheatley trying out Science Fiction his THE MAN WHO MISSED THE WAR, THEY FOUND ATLANTIS, WHITE WITCH OF THE SOUTH SEAS, and THE FABULOUS WAR all work better, ATLANTIS made into a Hammer film called the LOST CONTINENT. None of those equal is spy, historical, and supernatural output though.

    It's fashionable to bemoan the fact he wasn't much of a stylist and his work can be heavy going at time, but I am still a reader who admires his best work. There may be much to forgive but there is also much to admire in his best work.