Attentive readers will have noted I received several vintage paperbacks from eBay recently, of which Thank You, Mr Moto was the shortest. After polishing that off I was rather gung-ho to dip into more 1930s thrillers so I chose this 1931 crime mystery. It’s of the Agatha Christie ‘body in the library’ type puzzle story.
I have a rule of thumb that you can judge the quality of a book, before you’ve read it, by looking at a photo of the author. Physiognomy is real and, like Orwell said, “at 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” Just look at these two and tell me which is going to be the more competent writer:
Should I continue? Well, yes I should. Let’s look at more author profile photos and consider what they show us. Each of the four below is an acknowledged master of his craft. Look at what they all share: strong confident gaze, clean facial features, intelligent brow. Cool guys. You just know their books will be good.
This is why the first time I saw Dennis Wheatley’s photo, after having read my first book of his, I immediately punched the air. “Yes! I knew it!”
I’ve now read thirteen of his novels so I feel somewhat qualified on assessing him as a writer. I think the first thing for a modern day reader to grasp is what a big deal Wheatley was in his era. From the 1930s through to the 1960s he was one of the world’s best-selling authors and apparently his Gregory Sallust series inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond (in addition to the real-life adventures of an actual British agent). There are two reasons why Wheatley is under-appreciated now, namely (i) his estate was caught up in a long protracted legal battle between his heirs so no publisher could risk reprinting him without being sure of the copyright holder (ii) he is a prime example of the Dead White Men that modern Leftists love to hate.
The villains of Wheatley novels are communists, Satanists, and the French  Here’s a quote from the first chapter as the protagonist Duke De Richleau is explaining to his guest why he chose the Mausoleum Club for their meeting:
“Therefore I asked you to dine in this quaint old place, behind closed doors through which the word socialism has never penetrated, and women do not come.”
To read Wheatley is to relax into the warm atmosphere of old-world English aristocratic life. His heroes are mostly Dukes and Counts and they benevolently look after their loyal servants. Class conflict is absent, except when agitated by vile communists, usually at the behest of the Bolsheviks or Satan himself. Patriotism is a given, as is a man’s duty to confront his enemy head-on and give him a bloody good sock on the jaw. Consider the opening to chapter two:
Some two hours later M. de Richleau and his guest sat entrenched behind long cigars; they had just savoured the last drops of a sixty-year bottle of Madeira, and both were filled with the sense of well-being that succeeds a carefully chosen dinner and fine wines.
People don’t write that way any longer. Modern protagonists do not entrench themselves, nor do they savour or succeed. Most of Wheatley’s conversations are conducted in drawing rooms stacked with leather-bound volumes along the walls and animal skins across the floor. There is always a long exposition scene early on in which the characters give voice to Wheatley’s current social and political manifesto.
Some would call that clumsy writing. I love it.
When De Richleau had finished his conversation with James Ritherdon he rang up Rex at his little house in Trevor Square.
Rex was officially out, but actually at home. He had, however, given instructions to Mrs. Bottom that should the Duke or Simon Aron ring up they were to be put through.
In just two sentences we learn the following:
- There is such as thing as being officially out, but actually at home. I immediately decided to claim this upper class affectation for myself.
- Men should have more than one house, and a little house is one of them, no doubt for convenience when in the city centre on business.
- One has a lady to whom one gives instructions on which personages may be put through to the sitting room.
To an Englishman such as myself, who deeply believes that the Victorian era was the apogee of civilisation, reading a Dennis Wheatley book is like having a long relaxing massage. It’s a reminder that life is noble, that education and excellence are to be cherished, and that great men exist. I also greatly enjoy how he frames the villains. Late in the book, there is a scene where Duke De Richleau and his friend Rex are attempting to trace any witnesses who saw a particular man leave a particular apartment building around ten pm a week earlier. After knocking on doors, they finally find a witness and he’s……. a faggot.
Chapter XXIII is called The Curious Behaviour of Mr. Carrington Smythe and he’s a loathsome pillow-biter. I was laughing out loud at how unfavourably Wheatley characterised this villain, proudly trumpeting every homosexual stereotype you could ask for.
“Rex gave the young man a sharp glance and thought him one of the most unpleasant people whom he’d ever seen. He was extraordinarily good-looking in the classic style, but he was not really young at all, and had he been a woman, one would have said he was thirty, made up to look eighteen. It was his boyish figure and his wavy golden hair that gave him the appearance of youth, on first sight. His bright, hard eyes were full of knowledge and cunning, his thin-lipped mouth a line of determined viciousness.” 
Before the book is done, we learn the following about Mr Smythe, that he:
- is middle-aged but desperately trying to look younger in order to seduce twinks.
- has pederast photos lying around everywhere.
- immediately makes a sexual play for the good-looking Rex.
- speaks like Graham Norton, as fruity as can be.
- is engaged in prostitution and has a client hiding in the bedroom.
- witnessed the murderer because he was out soliciting clients.
- blackmails the murderer and skips town, betraying the police and Justice and allowing the murderer a chance to escape prosecution.
It’s so liberating to read a book that doesn’t pander to the degenerate vermin in our country and instead clearly portrays them as villains. Imagine how differently Mr Smythe would’ve been presented in Kurland’s Moriarty books. In those he’d have been making all kinds of intelligent quips that rang rings around the bigotted stuffy policemen, like an Oscar Wilde.
As much as I like the style of Dennis Wheatley, I must nonetheless confess that Three Inquisitive People is the weakest of his that I’ve yet read. The problem is this: Wheatley is at his best writing action, especially historical adventures spanning several countries. His best books are the French Revolution adventures of Roger Brook (like a Dumas book from the English perspective) or the espionage adventures of Gregory Sallust against the Nazis. Even the previous Duke De Richleau stories were all adventures. Not murder mysteries. Adventures.
In Three Inquisitive People, Wheatley is trying to do an Agatha Christie, turning his character into a Hercule Poirot. Consider this is 1931 when that style was fresh and wildly popular. So the whole of this book is men sitting in lounges and restaurants turning over evidence and theories to each other through dialogue. There is almost no action. No shoot outs, or car chases, or fist fights, or prison breaks. No battles.
Even the stakes are low: some old unpleasant woman got murdered in her bath.
And… he just doesn’t pull it off. Agatha Christie has mastered how to follow a detective through interviewing witnesses, examining crime scenes, and following-up on clues. Her books come alive with characterisation and she rarely needs to spell out the deductions for you. Wheatley has always been heavy-handed in his exposition so his interchanges between characters come off stiff and obvious.
There were no clever twists, no artful misdirection, and little in the way of charming human insight like in a Christie novel. This book is all logical, straight-forward, and clumsily obvious. Needless to say, I guessed the killer long before the book meant it to be obvious. Unlike the rare cases I prevent Christie from pulling the wool over my eyes, this was no challenge.
Also, there’s a bizarre change in tone in the final chapters as Wheatley tries to up the emotional ante to give the book a rousing climax. It’s not at all foreshadowed, makes no sense, and relies upon the characters acting like retards – exactly what I complained of in an earlier review.
I won’t warn you off this book as I still enjoyed it, but don’t come here expecting a tightly-crafted whodunnit. If you want to enjoy Dennis Wheatley’s old school vibe, I’d much more strongly recommend his earlier Duke De Richleau story Vendetta In Spain or for a more Dumas vibe try Roger Brook in The Rape Of Venice 
If you like the idea of pompous men puffing on cigars and drinking wine in gentleman’s clubs, then you’ll love my memoir A Deplorable Cad where I did precisely that with my colleagues Duke James de Burnley and Count Mick von Hobart.
 Just like real life
 Interesting about the mouth, as it’s exactly how Anonymous Conservative would describe it in traitors like FBI’s Andrew McCabe or Peter Stroyk.
 The first Wheatley book I read, which I loved.