Yesterday I went to another of literary agency PFD’s salons at the Groucho Club, this time to celebrate the books and lives of John Creasey and Dennis Wheatley. Authors who were read by everyone at their peaks, hugely influential with totally different lives and styles – yet as we discovered, they have a lovely connection… It was a real pleasure to meet both author’s sons – Richard Creasey and Dominic Wheatley, also Charles Beck who currently runs the Dennis Wheatley website. It was also lovely to meet up with Elaine and Lizzie of the Mystery People website again.
L-R: Charles Beck, Richard Creasey, Camilla from PFD
First to talk was Charles Beck who was very quick to make it clear that Wheatley (1897-1977) was far, far more than the black magic novels he is notorious for writing. Apart from the 11 ‘Duke De Richleau’ novels, he wrote over fifty other books including the WWII Gregory Sallust series – which gave inspiration to Ian Fleming when he created James Bond, and many other spy and adventure novels and historical non-fiction too.
Born into a family of Mayfair wine merchants, (here Charles produced an ancient unopened bottle of clementine gin unearthed from Dominic’s wine cellar – but couldn’t be persuaded to open it!), Wheatley was expelled from Dulwich College having made unsuitable friends, and went into the Navy. During WWII though, he distinguished himself working on top secret deception planning operations, which included making sure that a lot of Germans went to the wrong place on D-Day. Beck showed us a paper he had written which detailed suggestions for dealing with a German invasion of Britain.
Unable to write about his work, his first published novel was The Forbidden Territory – the first in the Satanist Duke De Richleau series and it was a huge success. Charles explained that Wheatley researched everything in his books to the nth degree. He met Aleister Crowley researching for his most famous book, The Devil Rides Out for instance – which was made into an iconic Hammer Horror film starring his friend Christopher Lee and Charles Gray. Wheatley on screen could have had a rather different trajectory, although the Hammer film is much loved (including by me), for Wheatley was friends with Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch was going to film The Forbidden Territory, but when he changed studios it never got made. Charles still hopes that his books will brought back onto screen, suggesting that Johnny Depp could be a shoe-in for a modern devilish Duke.
Then, Richard Creasey told us some wonderful anecdotes about his father. John Creasey (1908-1973) was the seventh of nine children and felt compelled to write from an early age, and in a remarkable career despite getting 743 rejections from publishers, he went on to write around 600 novels under 28 different pseudonyms.
Unable to join up due to a gammy leg from polio, in 1938 he was working as a postman and it was Christmas Eve. Richard set the scene – he treated himself to fish and chips on the way home and on the newspaper wrapper saw an advert for a novel-writing competition for publisher Harrap. He had ten days until entries closed. He wrote Meet the Baron and won £1500, which enabled him to give up work to become a full time writer. Dennis Wheatley was one of the judges!
Creasey’s output was incredible. He wrote 15-20,000 words a day, around 36 books a year, bashing them out initially onto carbon paper as he couldn’t afford typewriter ribbons. He believed that books should be short enough to read on say the train journey from Manchester to London, around 200 pages or so. Failing to get published in the USA due to a lack of editing, Creasey had a cunning plan. He took his family with him on a round the world trip, publishing more novels as he went (they only took 5 days to write). Meanwhile his UK readers did his editing for him, and by the time he tried the USA again, he had edited typescripts and a reputation as a (self-made) international author.
He wrote many different series, including the ground-breaking Gideon series featuring police Detective Super George Gideon of Scotland Yard. Gideon’s Day was the first, and the 7th, Gideon’s Fire, won an Edgar in 1962. Gideon’s Day follows one day in Gideon’s life – as he has to deal with many different crimes and problems, something that hadn’t appeared in a crime novel before. It was filmed starring Jack Hawkins in 1968. The Gideon, and The Baron series of books both became TV series too.
Another series was the Inspector West one, in which the titular policeman has sons named after Richard and his brother. Richard also told us about having tea with Agatha Christie when she visited after his father founded the Crime Writers Association as a meeting place for crime writers to share their experiences. To become a member of the CWA, you have to have had a crime novel published – Richard told us how, despite his severe dyslexia, he managed to write one just so he could join!
Richard was delightful company, he was a TV producer and co-founder of the Digital Village / H2G2 in the early 1990s, working alongside Douglas Adams. H2G2 was a little like a precursor to Wikipedia with peer reviewed articles written by its users. I can remember submitting various articles to it, notably one about Tom Waits but haven’t been able to find it – maybe it never got approved. The website has changed ownership over the years, but is still going as a forum and resource for eclectic information today.
It was lovely to talk to Dominic Wheatley too, who used to get quizzed a lot about his famous/notorious father as a lad at Downside Abbey (a Catholic boarding school). I suspect he rather liked that! Dominic was one of the founders of UK computer gaming company Domark which became the multi-national giant Eidos; he’s now looking at creating a new UK gaming company.
Having read both Wheatley and Creasey as a teenager, I’m looking forward to revisiting them, having come away with copies of three of Wheatley’s Duke De Richleau series and Creasey’s Gideon’s Day. It was a lovely afternoon. Thank you again to PFD for inviting me.