A Soviet Adventure with Dennis Wheatley

The Forbidden Territory by Dennis Wheatley

Wheatley 1aEarlier this year I reported on an afternoon spent at the Groucho Club arranged by literary agents PFD, hearing about the novels of Dennis Wheatley (and John Creasey).  I finally managed to make time to read a Wheatley …

The Forbidden Territory was Wheatley’s first published novel in 1933. It was an instant bestseller and as the first in his series of eleven ‘Duke de Richleau’ books, it introduces us to four of his most famous recurring characters, of whom more below.

Wheatley is perhaps most remembered for his black magic novels. The second in this series, The Devil Rides Out, is one of them and will be familiar to many from the 1968 Hammer Horror film starring Christopher Lee, Patrick Mower and Charles Gray. However, there is no black magic in The Forbidden Territory – it’s a good old-fashioned action adventure yarn…

Mr. Simon Aron, “a young English Jew”, has been dining with the Duke de Richleau at his flat. After dinner, they are enjoying a Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey cigar with their coffee, when the much older Duke, a French exile asks his young friend for his opinion on a strange letter he had recently received, postmarked Helsingfors in Finland:

Dear Comrade,
Since I left New York centre I have been investigating the possibilities of mineral wealth in this country.
There is one mine containing valuable deposits which has been closed down for a number of years, and I had hoped to get it going. Unfortunately, before I could do so, I was sent to the place where Comrade Eatonov was for a short time. …
I certainly need help pretty badly in my present position – it’s too much for me alone.
Your old comrade and fellow-worker,
Tsarderynski  (p2)

It doesn’t take them long to decipher the letter. Their friend, the American, Rex Van Ryn is Tsar-de-ryn-ski. The reference to Comrade Eatonov refers to their mutual friend Richard Eaton who did time in Brixton (prison). So Rex appears to be imprisoned somewhere in the depths of Soviet Russia and needs rescuing.  “It seems to me that you and I have got to take a trip to Russia,” says Simon.

The Duke and Simon make arrangements to meet in Moscow, which requires some ingenuity to engineer a ‘chance meeting’ which can fool the Intourist guides who will be assigned to them. But before setting off, Simon makes the acquaintance of Madame Valeria Petrovna Karkoff, a Russian actress who is in town. She, as the femme fatale of the story, will prove to be both useful and a hindrance in the execution of their plans to rescue their friend, and Simon will rather fall for her. Much to her amusement, they make a date for lunch…

Simon considered for a moment, then he said, seriously: ‘Are you doing anything for lunch today week?’
She put her head back, and her magnificent laughter filled the car. ‘Foolish one, I shall be in Moskawa – you are an absurd.’
‘Ner,’ Simon shook his head quickly. ‘Tell me – are you booked for lunch next Thursday?’
… Silly boy – of course not, but I ‘ave old you – I shall be Moskawa once more!’
‘All right,’ said Simon, decisively. ‘Then you will meet me for lunch at one-o’clock at the Hotel Metropole in Moscow – Thursday, a week today.’
The car had stopped before the entrance to the hotel, the commissionaire stepped forward and opened the door.
‘You make a joke! You do not mean this?’ she asked, in her melodious, husky voice, leaning forward to peer into his face.
‘I do,’ nodded Simon, earnestly.
She laughed suddenly, and drew her hand quickly down his cheek with a caressing gesture. ‘All right – I will be there!’ (p19)

It turns out that Rex has been on the trail of Tsarist treasure hidden in a ‘forbidden territory’ in Siberia when he was rumbled and thrown into a remote jail. It’ll be a tall order for the duke and Simon to:

a) Evade the minders who are assigned to all outside visitors to the USSR,
b) Get to Siberia, several thousand miles East,
c) Spring Rex from prison,
d) Find the treasure – no point in leaving without it!
e) Escape back to the West.

Wheatley 1bThey have a real adventure ahead of them and Wheatley delivers, adding twists, turns and complications. The Duke has a lifetime of experience, Simon has youthful enthusiasm and Rex, when they find him, is a real rogue. It’s all great fun for these well-heeled adventurers who find themselves in peril many times. The Duke, however, still manages to produce some of his beloved cigars when needed, so it’s not that bad!

Simon has a weird tic of saying ner instead of no. Wheatley explains this “curious negative” which “came of his saying ‘no’ without troubling to close the lips of his full mouth.” A colourful detail of characterisation that was rather unnecessary, unlike the heavily accented English of Valeria Petrovna which, as the archetype of a Bond girl, was entirely called for! (One of Wheatley’s other series characters, Gregory Sallust, is reputed to have been an influence on Fleming when he created James Bond.)

This novel was published just before Stalin got going with his purges of those opposing him in the Soviet Communist Party, but he had been building up the secret police already and cultivating the mindset that everyone should inform on each other in the general populace. Wheatley’s heroes, with their patrician and cosmopolitan outlooks, contrast strongly with what they find in the depths of Russia, where allies are hard to come by.

This novel may lack the sophistication of Eric Ambler’s spy stories or Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’, but as an action-thriller, it was concise, always interesting and great fun to read. Now bring me that black magic – I’m ready for it!  (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you.

Dennis Wheatley, The Forbidden Territory (1933), Bloomsbury Reader paperback, 256 pages.

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