DENNIS WHEATLEY – They Used Dark Forces. Gregory Sallust #10. Hutchinson, UK, hardcover, 1964. Arrow, UK, paperback, 1966. Hutchinson, US, hardcover, 1978.

   Dennis Wheatley, who rightfully bragged that when they spoke of sixty million of his books worldwide they meant sales and not in print, once said he never knew a bestselling writer who knew the meaning of syntax, and often seemed on a one man crusade to prove just that.

   Now before all you Wheatley fans get upset, you would be hard put to be a greater fan of his work than me. At his best (The Devil Rides Out, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, The Ka of Gifford Hillary, The Sword of Fate) he was a grand storyteller and even at his worst (Star of Ill-Omen, in which Martians team up with Commies to blow up London with atomic weapons after much nude John Cartering on Mars and in space by his ruthless secret agent hero) he can be great fun.

   Like the novels of his hero Alexandre Duma pere, his books are a mix of history, cloak and dagger, melodrama, romance, a bit of sex, much swashbuckling, and the outre and outright supernatural. Unlike Dumas, though, he never quite managed the art of blending the history into the story entirely naturally, so in any Wheatley novel with a historical setting the reader has to contend with what was once described as vast chunks of undigested history.

   His best loved works were his supernatural novels which he often mixed with espionage, sometimes to fine effect (The Satanist). After that came his historical spy novels (either featuring modern agent Gregory Sallust or 18th and early 19th Century British Prime Minister William Pitt’s own agent, Roger Brook).

   Sallust began as a journalist in a science fiction novel (Wheatley wrote several including They Found Atlantis and The Man Who Missed the War), Black August about an attempted Communist overthrow of England using a tactic not unlike the 1926 General Strike, then followed that up as something of an outlaw hero battling smugglers in Contraband, but it was the war that gave the Sallust series its real impetus, and through books like Faked Passport and Come into My Parlour, which put our hero in various historical contexts and settings throughout the war on missions for Sir Pellinor Gwayne-Cust, M to his early Bond, usually involving Sallust’s Austrian Baroness lover Erika.

   Late in his career Wheatley decided to blend his two interests, historical espionage and the occult, and produced his best Roger Brook novel, The Dark Secret of Josephine (in which Brook uncovers the West Indies-born first wife of Napolean’s ties to voodoo), and having already involved Sallust in two post-war outings, one dealing with a lost kingdom and the other voodoo and spies in Brazil, produced They Used Dark Forces, in which Sallust finds himself aligned with a Satanist behind the lines in World War Two occupied Europe.

   I wish I could report Forces was a great entry into either the occult or the Sallust adventures, but it honestly is not. Sallust is a bit more ruthless than before (though he was always pretty bloody-minded with his Satanic widow’s peak and saturnine scar over one eye), and the sex is certainly more pronounced, if at best, mildly titillating (and probably only to Wheatley’s youngest fans) even though there is some fairly kinky business going on including an incestuous Black Mass witnessed by Erika, but this time around the heroes are using the dark forces of the title, and it doesn’t have the same impact as when they are opposed by occult powers.

   Frankly it is all reported so flatly that any reader would have to be pretty hard up to read it for its erotic value. Sadly that is true for most of the action too, though mid-way through it picks up a good deal in terms of action, pace, and suspense.

   Things feel a bit leisurely up to that point and a bit hurried from then on.

   Basically Sallust and a White Russian ally are sent behind enemy lines to spy on the rocket base at Peenemunde, and their contact turns out to be the daughter of a Jewish Kabbalist and Satan worshiper who is living in Germany under a Turkish name and passport on the estate of his widowed daughter’s late SS husband. When Sallust is badly injured during the destruction of the rocket facility he falls under the unfortunate influence of this Dr. Malacou, and allows himself to be hypnotized.

   A fairly tense and prolonged battle of wills between the ill hero and the Satanist follows as the two learn how to communicate psychically during the months of Sallust’s recovery. Eventually Sallust does recover and manages to break the man’s hold and escapes back to England in time to take part in preparation for D-Day (the most interesting part of the book since Wheatley himself was deeply involved in the deceptions around the invasion and coincidentally once joined Ian Fleming to interview the Beast himself, Alister Crowley). Wheatley and fellow thriller writer Hugh Clevely (Maxwell Archer, Gang-Smasher, and Sexton Blake) even have a bit of a walk on.

   But D-Day past, a new threat, the V-2 rocket, appears, and Sallust still psychically linked to the Kabbalist, discovers the man is now in Poland where the Poles have captured one of the fallen rockets and a Polish engineer has discovered how they work (that part minus Sallust and the Kabbalist being true), so Sallust, who has sworn never to return to Occupied Europe again after his ordeal, finds himself flying in as a psychic guide to the RAF flight picking up the Polish engineer, and again thrust into dire circumstances as he fulfills the Kabbalist’s prophecy that he will save his life only to be caught behind the lines again with no papers and money, speaking no Polish, with his only chance of escape to make his way to Berlin posing as a German.

   And that’s only a little more than midway through the book.

   Before it is over, Sallust and Malacou will be imprisoned in a German camp; rescued by none other than Goering; Sallust will be reunited with Sabine, the beautiful wife of an SS officer, with whom he had a passionate and guilty affair ; reunited with his own beloved Erika, an Austrian Baroness married to a despicable German scientist, and her husband: and survive the Soviet invasion of Berlin to witness Hitler’s death in the Bunker before the Kabbalist makes the ultimate sacrifice for the British agent.

   That’s a lot even for a 500 plus page Wheatley novel. He usually satisfies himself with only a few months or weeks, here he covers everything from the invasion of Sicily to the end of the War, 1943 to 1945.

   In the end Wheatley wins you over — or wears you out, at times it is hard to say which — and despite the passages of dry reporting on the war (which are at least interesting if somewhat colored), I enjoyed They Used Dark Forces. It is not in the top rank of Wheatley’s work, but Malacou is an interesting figure, and the relationship between he and Sallust is complex to say the least. Certainly the most surprising fact of the book is that it is the hero using the dark forces of the title and not the Nazis, and Wheatley’s obvious mixed feelings about his own plot and his hero’s Satanist ally

   If you like Wheatley you will probably enjoy it. If you are unfamiliar with his work this is not a good entry point, but if you want a somewhat dry history lesson interrupted by a bit of kinky sex and random violence, this should be ideal. In many ways Wheatley appears to be the model for some of the more prolix thriller writers of today, pick your own names.

   Maybe he wasn’t so far off with that syntax crack.