Back in the 1930s, supernatural/spy/crime author Dennis Wheatley wrote a series of four novels with JG Links that turned the traditonal whodunnit into an interactive puzzle. They were:
- Murder off Miami (July 1936)
- Who Killed Robert Prentice? (June 1937)
- The Malinsay Massacre (April 1938)
- Herewith the Clues! (July 1939)
It’s never been possible to repeat the formula of these books at an affordable price, but one volume, ‘Murder Off Miami’, was reprinted in the 1970s and became a collector’s item. Like the very first detective story, ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’, it consisted of letters, reports, plans and notes, but with the addition of photographs, a piece of bloodstained material, a burned match, a lock of hair and other pieces of evidence in little bags.
At the back of the book is a sealed section containing the solution to the mystery. I guess no-one is ever going to do anything like this again.
‘Really?’ said a friend, ‘Wheatley, out of print now? Are you sure?’ And indeed, a little checking proves the case. One of the world’s best-selling authors (he shifted over fifty million copies from the 1930s to the 1960s) is fading away. It’s not hard to see why; in our dark modern world Satanists seem rather quaint, and certainly not worthy of the hilarious warning Wheatley placed at the front of his supernatural novels about the ‘very real dangers’ of witchcraft.
Dennis Yates Wheatley (1897-1977) was an inventive, prolific author who conjured forbidden thrills by selling the virtually non-existent ‘reality’ of black magic to aghast British readers. In ‘The Haunting of Toby Jugg’, a monstrous malevolent spider-thing taps at Toby’s bedroom window trying to get in, and it’s there night after night. Toby is a wounded Battle of Britain pilot and thinks he’s hallucinating, but there are Satanic forces at work and he’s powerless to stop them. It’s a book that gave generations of teenaged boys nightmares, written three years after WWII and filled with the dread of Nazi invasion.
Gregarious and clubbable, Wheatley hailed from an upper middle-class family who owned a wine business. His adventure stories were packed with sex, Satanism and snobbery, linked with shared-world characters and teeming with ludicrous incident, giving him the kind of popular appeal Ian Fleming enjoyed. He was drawn to creating titled heroes in the grand traditional vein, like Gregory Sallust, ‘The man the Nazis couldn’t kill!’, but his fantastical novels were less stiff-necked and offered more disreputable hi-jinks. The author of ‘They Found Atlantis’ also invented board games.
Wheatley’s wife found him a job coordinating secret military deceptions for Winston Churchill, who asked him to suggest what the Germans were up to. Surprisingly, he was often near the mark, although his fears that they would invent a death ray proved unfounded.
‘The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult’ appeared in mass market paperbacks that brought new audiences, and Hammer adapted his work, their best being ‘The Devil Rides Out’, in which the Duc de Richleau defeats the forces of evil, although Hammer’s budget did not stretch to a chase across Europe and culminated in Buckinghamshire. Phil Baker’s superb biography, ‘The Devil Is A Gentleman’ fills in the details and catches Wheatley’s breathless appeal.