There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Coming events cast their shadows before them: Come Into My Parlour by Dennis Wheatley (1946).

....Sir Pellinore had popped a dose of veronal into Gregory's last drink, so he slept until nearly midday. On waking he felt pretty heady but he remembered perfectly clearly all that had taken place the night before. For a little he lay in bed torturing himself with thoughts of what might be happening to Erika; but, after a bit, he realised that he was acting like a fool, as unnerving speculations about her could do neither her nor him any good, and that his best hope of defeating Grauber lay in regarding the problem of her rescue as coldly and logically as if it was no personal concern of his at all.

After a bath he felt slightly better; then, downstairs, he had a Pim and three cocktails with Sir Pellinore, which made him feel more his own man.

When they had lunched Sir Pellinore provided the best possible antidote to his guest's depression. Upstairs in his library he had a fine collection of maps, both historical and modern, and he produced a great pile, all showing either Lake Constance or the ancient Kingdom of Wurttemberg, in which Schloss Niederfels lay. Work, and work connected with the hazardous journey he was soon about to undertake, was the very thing Gregory needed to occupy his mind. He spent most of the rest of the day concentrating on memorising the names of German villages, the by-roads that connected them and the situation of wooded areas which would give good cover if required.

On the Monday morning Sir Pellinore introduced both Gregory and Stefan to a clever-looking little man wearing thick-lensed spectacles. He had at one time been a dentist but, owing to the war, had gravitated to certain highly specialised duties connected with sabotage operations. From a little box he produced some small squares of hardish, jelly-like substance each of which had a little lump in its middle. The lump was the cyanide of potassium and its coating so composed that, with a little pressure, it would stick to the side of a back tooth and, once stuck, would need a really hard thrust of the tongue to dislodge.

"If you—er—get into trouble," he explained gently, "you simply rip it off with your tongue and bite through its centre. The result is very swift and, I believe, affects the user only by a sudden contraction, as though he were about to give a violent sneeze.

"You will see," he went on, "that they are of two colours. The green ones are dummies for you to practise with; the red ones are the real thing. Both kinds can be kept permanently in the mouth for a considerable time without any likelihood of their dissolving and becoming dangerous. But, if necessary, I advise that you should replace a used one by a new one after a fortnight. Now, I'd like to look at your mouths to decide the most suitable places for you to wear them."

Having asked on which side of their mouths they chewed by preference, he made a very careful examination of their teeth, and affixed two of the dummies. Then, wishing them good luck, he departed....

Come Into My Parlour by Dennis Wheatley (1946).

We are in Ashenden country here: Switzerland and Russia.

Come Into My Parlour is one of the more focused Sallust novels. There are nice atmospheric touches: Gregory and Stefan jaunting between Russian and German lines in a stolen vehicle during a blizzard as they travel from Leningrad to Moscow; nighttime criscrossings of the Bodensee; hide and seek in a castle suitable for a Dornford Yates thriller.

I wish Wheatley were a better writer. Imagine his vigor, inventiveness and scope combined with pen of a Maugham, a Waugh, or a Fleming. The arcs of his plots are usually sound in 1940s terms. His love of high living with fine food and spirits is always welcome. But as the sentences themselves go by, it feels like a long ride on highway rumble strips.

Wheatley's Sallust thrillers would have benefitted from parallel action in alternating chapters. In Come Into My Parlour we get huge chunks Erika being lured to Lake Constance so that she can be kidnapped as bait to lure Sallust; then a chunk of Gregory and Stefan in Russia, interviewing Voroshilov and evading Grauber. Today's thriller writers would weave the simultaneous events together by cross-cutting and employing shorter chapters.

Politically, Wheatley being Wheatley, we get the usual stuff about how decent a gent Admiral Canaris was and how Mussolini was just fine until he started getting too tightly bound-up with Hitler in '39. It's a solid example of petty bourgeois anti-communist opinion, and of the double-entry moral bookkeeping made famous by the middle class left and right.

Canaris and Himmler's plan to lure Sallust into Germany is ingenious, and I will leave it to the reader to savor. Canaris's appearance brought back the enjoyable 1970s World War Two thrillers of Jack Higgins.

The S.S. villain Grauber leaves a lot to be desired. Wheatley describes him first as a "mincing pervert," then as an implacable and physically dangerous opponent, then as a coward. The one thing Grauber is never graced with by his creator is the idea to just shoot Sallust when he has him in hand. Like Dr. Evil dealing with Austin Powers, everything is deferred and deflected to give Sallust a lifeline.

From the above paragraphs it sounds like I disliked Come Into My Parlour, that I am picking it apart with gripes. In fact I enjoyed the novel, an absurd and impossible fantasy filled with good food, good drink, good friends, good scenery, and a good fight.

29 April 2018

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