is the eighth adventure of freelance spy Gregory Sallust. (Eighth in the internal chronology of the series, not in order of publication.) I have read all eight in the last two years and found this pop roman-fleuve richly rewarding.
Yes, Wheatley does love employing the long arm of coincidence. Yes, he overuses the word “had” when revisions to his sentence structure would have made for sharper constructions.
But these are quibbles. The joy of these novels is their depiction of the good life.
Five hours after Gregory landed in England he was sitting in the lofty book-lined room that had been the scene of the beginnings and ends of all his secret missions. It looked out from the back of Carlton House Terrace to the Admiralty, the Foreign Office and the other massive buildings in which throbbed the heart of Britain’s war machine. The fact that it was raining did not depress him in the least.
Beside him on a small table were the remains of a pile of foie gras sandwiches off which he had been making a second breakfast, and nearby stood an ice-bucket in which reposed a magnum of his favourite Louis Roederer 1928. From it his silver tankard was being filled for the second time by his old friend and patron, Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust.
The major complaint about the Sallust novels is their unabashed admiration for European fascism. Like John Buchan, Wheatley in his fiction has his hero fiercely extol the virtues of this anti-labor militia movement.
Here is Sallust discussing politics with his lover Sabine:
Smiling, she returned his kiss then sighed and said, ‘Oh God, how I hate this war. Just to think what a bomb has done to you and robbed us of. And the even worse things that have happened to such thousands of other people. May that filthy little Austrian that brought it on us rot in hell for all eternity.’
‘You seem to have changed your views quite a lot since last we met,’ Gregory grinned. ‘Two summers ago when we talked of these things in Budapest you were a hundred per cent pro-Nazi.’
‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘But look what the Communists did to Hungary after the First World War. Those gutter-bred swine robbed families like mine of everything we had, and did their utmost to degrade everyone to their own filthy level. You British, with your stupid, pale-pink Liberalism, made no effort to stop them. Neither did the French. The only people who had the guts to stand up to them were the Italians and the Germans. Naturally, as German influence was so strong in Hungary I became a Nazi. What sensible person wouldn’t have? But I’m not a Nazi now. They’ve made themselves untouchables. Say that I’m a Fascist, if you like. But I’m not a Nazi.’
Gregory nodded. ‘There’s a lot to be said for the Fascists. Old Mussolini did a great job in cleaning up Italy. If only he’d stayed neutral he’d be on the top of the world today and Italy positively bulging with money made out of both sides during the war. That he got folie de grandeur and thought that with Hitler’s help he could become a modern Roman Emperor, ruling the whole Mediterranean, was one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Little Franco, too, has done a great job of work in Spain. What is more he has had the sense to keep his country out of the war, so given it a real chance to recover. Why people should cavil at him for having put the Moscow-inspired agitators and saboteurs behind bars I could never see. If he’d run his country on the lines the idiot British and French intellectuals and those crazy Americans would have liked to see, by this time Spain would have had a Communist Government. Quite a useful card for the war against Hitler. But what about afterwards, with Russian bombers based there only two hours’ flight from London and Paris? Some people simply can’t be dissuaded from trying to cut off their noses to spite their faces. But all this is beside the point. You say you’re no longer a Nazi; but you’re still working for them.’
‘Up to a point,’ she agreed thoughtfully. ‘I’d still turn in these dirty little Marxists who’d like to see Germany a Soviet Republic, whenever I could get the goods on them. But I’ve never yet given information about those of our own kind who would like to see Hitler as an ugly corpse.’
They Used Dark Forces is a strange title for the novel, as it suggests Berlin is employing dark forces to win their war. But the they is Sallust himself, and a man named Malacou, with whom he has a telepathic bond. The bond is developed when Malacou hides Sallust for several months as a leg injury heals.
They Used Dark Forces is more James Bond than Duke De Richleau. The telepathy allows Wheatley to unpack some contradictions, and it forms a line on which he can hang the last half of the novel.
One scene in particular contains a solid piece of uncanny business. Sallust and Malacou, in Berlin and pretending to be occult mind-readers, are taken by their jailer to a March 1945 banquet at the home of Herman Goering. There their performance certainly raises gooseflesh, since the dinner guests are dancing on the edge of a volcano.
Soon after ten Kaindl came for them. They accompanied him down to the ground floor and into a spacious dining room. It was so large that a horseshoe table occupied less than half of it, and Gregory saw that Goering’s idea of a small dinner party consisted of at least twenty people. Most of the men were in uniforms bedecked with Knight Stars, Iron Crosses and other decorations, but three of them were in dinner jackets and the women were all in décolleté evening dresses.
The Reichsmarschall sat enthroned at the outer centre of the horseshoe. As Gregory had thought might prove the case, he was clad in a white and gold toga and had a laurel wreath on his head. He had become enormously fat, his eyes were pouched, his cheeks loose and puffy and on his sausage-like fingers there gleamed rings worth several thousand pounds. No actor in a play would have given a better representation of one of the most dissolute Roman Emperors.
Kaindl led his two charges into the centre of the horseshoe and presented them as Herr Protze and Herr Malacou. Goering ran his eyes over them and spoke:
‘Colonel Kaindl tells me that you predicted our victory in the Ardennes and other matters correctly. Let us hear now what else you can tell us of the course the war will take.’
Gregory drew a deep breath. He was standing within ten feet of Goering and had escaped immediate recognition, but at any moment some expression on his features or in his voice might give him away. With a bow, he replied:
‘Excellency, it is necessary that my colleague be seated. He will then fall into a trance and I shall interpret the communications that he receives from the entities of the outer sphere.’
A chair was brought, Malacou sat down, closed his eyes and, after taking several long breaths, began to mutter. As Gregory felt sure that everyone there must realise that Germany could not now possibly win the war, and that if he held out false hopes no-one would believe him, he said:
‘Alas, through my colleague, the entities speak of no further German victories; but the soldiers of our great Führer will fight desperately in defence of the Reich. May will be the month of decision. Overtures for peace will be made. At that time there will be dissension in the Partei. Many prominent members of it will then die, but Your Excellency will not be among them. By March the Anglo-American armies will be across the Rhine and the Russians across the Oder. In May Berlin will become a doomed city; but it seems that resistance will continue in the south with the object of obtaining better terms from the Allies than they will be willing to give in May.’
Goering shrugged his massive shoulders. ‘You tell us little that from the way things are going we might not guess for ourselves.’
Now that Gregory was, as it were, right up in the firing line, he had got back his nerve and was on the top of his form. With a smile, he replied, ‘That the views of the Herr Reichsmarschall should coincide with fore-knowledge obtained from beyond confirms the soundness of his judgement. But to obtain more than an outline of general events is not possible. I can only add that war will continue to inflict the world at least until next August, and that in that month a disaster will occur in Japan that will affect the whole world.’
‘What kind of disaster?’
‘It will be in the nature of an earthquake or a violent eruption, but there are indications that it will be brought about by man.’
Suddenly Goering’s eyes lit up. ‘Lieber Gott! Could it be that the Allies are really so far advanced in developing an atom bomb?’
Gregory shrugged. ‘That is more than I can say; but many thousands of Japanese will die in the disaster. And now, if it please Your Excellency, my colleague can be the vehicle for much more precise predictions about individuals than about generalities. Would you like to be the first to have your future told?’
Goering shook his head. ‘No. I am content to wait and see what fate sends me.’ Then he gestured to a woman on his right and added, ‘Make a start with this lady here.’ Turning to the woman, Gregory bowed and asked her for the loan of something she always carried. She gave him her gold cigarette case and he handed it to Malacou. He then fetched a chair, sat down opposite the woman and asked her to lay her hands on the table, palms up. Smilingly she did so. For a few moments he studied her hands in silence, meanwhile he conveyed to Malacou what he read in them. Malacou, who was seated behind him, was at the same time psychometrising the cigarette case and communicating his thoughts. By working simultaneously on the same subject in this way they checked their findings, and when Malacou began to mutter Gregory pretended to interpret.
He told the woman that as a child she had had a serious accident that had affected her spine, that she had married twice and that her present husband was an airman, that she had two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom had been sent out of Germany, he thought to Sweden. Then he predicted that she would survive the war, have two more children and go to live in some southern country, he thought Spain.
With astonishment, she declared him to be perfectly right about her past and Goering clapped his mighty beringed hands.
The second subject was a younger woman. Having told her accurately about her past, Gregory said, ‘You, too, will survive the war, gnädige Frau. But not without injury. I regret to say that in an air-raid you will lose your right arm. You will also become a widow, but you will marry again, an elderly man who will provide you with every comfort.’
The third was a good-looking but rather sullen-faced woman. About her, spontaneously, Malacou sent Gregory a thought. As all that mattered was to impress Goering he decided to use it. When he had told her past, he said, ‘Within six months you will become the mistress of a Russian officer.’
Her eyes blazing with anger the woman sprang to her feet and slapped his face. But Goering roared with laughter and the rest of the guests followed his lead.
When the clamour had subsided Gregory started on his next subject. She was what the French term a ‘belle laide’. Her hair was a true gold and Gregory thought that he had rarely looked into a pair of more magnificent eyes; but her mouth was a thick gash across her face, and enormous. As he looked at her he suddenly wondered if she could be Sabine’s friend, Paula von Proffin of the letter-box mouth. When his reading of her hand and the thoughts Malacou sent him tallied with what Sabine had told him of Paula he felt certain of it. Malacou also conveyed to him that she would be raped to death by Russian soldiers. Looking at her with pity he decided to give her no idea of that. Instead, after telling her that she had had a hard early life as a model, then married a banker who had left her penniless, he added, ‘Your life will not be a long one, so make the most of it. At all events you are now married to an immensely rich man who can afford to indulge you in every luxury.’
Again Goering roared with laughter. Then, leaning forward towards a middle-aged man in a dinner jacket who was seated near him, he bellowed, ‘Listen to that, Hans. And you pleading poverty before dinner. You’ll not be able to deny little Paula anything after this.’
From that Gregory surmised that her new husband must be one of the chiefs of the Hermann Goering Werk, and that was why they were among Goering’s guests.
Paula gave Gregory a ravishing smile and he turned to the next woman along the table. Among other thoughts, Malacou informed him that she had a venereal disease. So in her case he ended by saying, ‘For the present I would advise you to lead the life of a nun; otherwise you will give anyone you go to bed with a present that he will not thank you for.’
She, too, jumped up in a fury, but Gregory sprang back in time to evade the slap she aimed at him. Again the cruel laughter rang out and, bursting into tears, the woman ran from the room.
‘Well done,’ wheezed Goering. ‘Well done. I shall find you invaluable.’
So it went on through the women, then the men took their turn. Most of them were to survive, but three were to die, and Gregory told them frankly that they would give their lives for the Führer; but he refused to give them particulars or dates. One among them was a Naval Captain and Malacou told Gregory, both by telepathy and by confirming it in the muttered Turkish that at times he used to ensure that Gregory got his thoughts exactly, that the Captain was a traitor in the camp and using his position to spy on Goering.
Gregory made no mention of that, but when he had told all their fortunes he addressed the Reichsmarschall. ‘Excellency, these psychic investigations into your guests have revealed one piece of information that I have not disclosed. It is for your ear alone and important to your safety. If you would give me a few minutes in private …’
Goering’s eyes held his for a moment, then the elephantine Chief of the Luftwaffe nodded, heaved himself up from his great ivory and gold throne and said, ‘Come with me.’
Picking up the skirts of his toga, he led the way out to an ante-room. On the walls there was a fabulous collection of paintings by the Dutch Masters. A great curved table desk occupied the centre of the room. With a grunt Goering lowered himself into a chair behind it, signed to Gregory to take another, and said:
‘Well, go ahead.’
‘That Naval Captain,’ Gregory replied. ‘I don’t know his name. But my colleague is certain that he has been planted here to spy on you.’
A broad grin spread over the Reichsmarschall’s fat face. ‘I know it. He is my Naval Attaché, but in the pay of Himmler. I keep him on a string. Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t. As long as he is here Himmler won’t send anyone else to spy on me. I feed him with what I want that crazy fool to know.’
Gregory smiled. ‘Then my warning is redundant, Herr Reichsmarschall. But Herr Malacou and I are deeply grateful for the way in which you have rescued us from prison and are anxious to be of service to you in any way we can.’
For a moment Goering studied Gregory’s face intently, then he said, ‘Tell me, Herr Protze, how much of this clever act of yours is trickery? There are no means by which your predictions about the future can be checked, but all my guests are well-known people; so you and this Oriental fellow for whom you appear to act as manager might have obtained particulars about their pasts from ordinary sources.’
‘No,’ Gregory replied firmly. ‘I assure Your Excellency that Herr Malacou is a genuine
mystic. After all, both of us have been confined at Sachsenhausen for the past four months; so what possible opportunity could we have had to ferret out facts about the lives of your guests?’
Goering nodded. ‘Yes. You certainly seem to have a point there. The Führer and Himmler swear by this sort of thing; but I never have. I’m still convinced that the occult has nothing to do with it. My belief is that you have only the ability to read people’s thoughts about themselves, and make up the rest. Still, that’s neither here nor there. The two of you provided us with an excellent entertainment, and in these days we haven’t much to laugh about. You may go now. Tell Colonel Kaindl to give you a glass of wine and to protect you from those angry women, and that I’ll rejoin my guests presently. I’ve a few notes I wish to make.’
Wheatley’s friendly portrait of Goering, like his favorable opinion of Churchill in the Sallust novels, is a perfect example of authorial bad taste. But once we accept the use of historical figures in popular fiction, I suppose portraying them all as slavering one-dimensional monsters would be a greater abuse of reality. Perhaps.
24 November 2018