Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Wheatley touch: review of The Black Baroness (1940).

The Black Baroness by Dennis Wheatley (1940).

During World War Two Wheatley found work in the UK government by writing never-never phantasies for UK special operations. These chaps gave Churchill and his fellow thuggish bully-boys some derring-do claptrap with which to dream upon at bedtime while they sold off the British Empire to Washington.

We get a hint of that bourgeois fantasyland when we read in The Black Baroness about all the shortcomings a bourgeois democracy creates for warmongers: most pro-appeasement politicians are being duped in pro-Hitler fifth column honey traps, most politicians have feet of clay, and the British voter is -- well!

Wheatley tries to have his cake and eat it, too. Condemning the UK rulers in with a broad brush, at the same time he can write:

....'Chamberlain,' boomed the baronet, 'was right about Munich-right every time. We wouldn't have stood a dog's chance against Hitler if we'd gone to war with him then. Chamberlain was clever enough to trick him into giving us a year to rearm, and in spite of the innumerable things that should have been done and yet were not done, at least the groundwork was laid which saved Britain from immediate and probably irremediable defeat. Whatever may happen to Chamberlain now, when history comes to be written he will assume his rightful place as a great and far-seeing Prime Minister who had the courage to accept the odium for having made Britain eat humble pie over the surrender of Czechoslovakia so that she might have a chance to save herself.'

The Black Baroness is filled with incident and dramatic climax: in fact it is nearly all climax. At least until the end, when we get to the final fate if the baroness herself, whereupon Wheatley breaks with the logic and continuity of motivation he has created for his villainess.

Still, the novel is not lacking scope, and is arresting considering it is a thriller written almost in real-time.

....April the 8th to June the 14th. It was just sixty-seven days since Hitler had swooped by night on unsuspecting Norway, and Gregory was thinking of the hideous chapters of history that had been made in that short time.

King Haakon and Queen Wilhelmina had been driven from their thrones. Leopold of Belgium was now branded for ever as a traitor. A million soldiers and civilians had died and another million lay wounded in the hospitals. Ten million people had been rendered homeless and another twenty million had fallen under the brutal domination of the Nazis. Paris had fallen and the enemy were in possession of the Channel ports, which brought their bombers within twenty-five miles of England. It had been one long nightmare tale of incompetent leadership, disaster, treachery and defeat....

That's how Wheatley narrates it, and it is a great thriller novel.

The fascinating class reality of the situation can be read in several articles in this Marxist newspaper from the period.

The fall of France is a worthy topic for the novelist, and despite his have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too view of politics, Wheatley does not disappoint.

I particularly enjoyed this example of the Wheatley touch:

"....But you have no credentials and admit yourself that you're not operating in any of the M. I. Services; so you can hardly expect me to trust you with an important military secret.'

Gregory smiled. 'I was about to say, sir, that there must be some things few German agents could possibly know; for instance, how the rooms are arranged in some of our West-End clubs, the best years for vintage port, the etiquette of the hunting field, and what takes place during a levee at St. James's Palace. If you care to test me out with a few questions of that kind I think you'll find you can satisfy yourself that I'm all right.'

The General accepted the suggestion and for a few minutes he fired questions at Gregory until they found that they had several mutual acquaintances, details about whose idiosyncrasies and relatives brushed away the General's lingering hesitation, so he said: 'Well, as far as I know, King Leopold is now at Ostend, but more than that I can't tell you.'

'Thanks. Now, how d' you suggest that I should get there?'

'If the matter is as urgent as you say, I'd better lend you a car and a driver.'

'I'd be very grateful if you could, sir.'

'Come with me and I'll fix it up.' The General led Gregory outside and handed him over to the divisional transport officer, who waved him away ten minutes later.

24 April 2018

No comments:

Post a Comment