Sunday, 21 February 2010

To the Devil -A Daughter!

I picked up this Dennis Wheatley occult thriller from the secondhand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge one wintery night in January. I love these book stalls, especially for finding these great old vintage paperbacks in good condition. This one's a handsome Arrow paperback with a rather stiff montage on the front cover, heavy on the goat's head and the suggestion of nubile nudity. The back cover has a terrific publicity shot of Dennis with a pen in his hand in his book-lined library, obviously hard at work in a blue satin dinner jacket and bow tie, fag in one hand and a glass of red wine nearby. When I was young, this is what I dreamed being a writer was all about!


These occulty thrillers always had an air of erotic eeriness about them when I was a kid. I remember in the seventies the salacious reputation of the Hammer movies of The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil - A Daughter; his books were also advertised in the back of colour supplements with imagery just like the cover of this edition.

The movies are far less sordid than their reputation suggests - The Devil Rides Out is pretty good, in fact - and the books are also a lot less shocking than the back cover blurb and imagery. They have much more in common with detective stories of Dorothy L Sayers and Sapper than they do with sex'n'gore exploitation paperbacks they shared shelf space with when I was a kid.

I read the Devil Rides Out a couple of years ago and found it very enjoyable - old fashioned, of course, but the Duke du Richelieu is a great character and Mocata an excellent villain. This is similarly old fashioned and also quite a lot of fun once you get used to it. It's set very tightly in the fifties, and deals entirely with the upper middle classes - everyone above is probably a decadent toff, while everyone below is either mean and cunning or the salt of the Earth. Wartime experience hangs over all the characters' back stories - I quite enjoyed that, as a matter of fact, as it gave a lot of interesting texture to the stories.

The setting is largely an entertainingly fashionable South of France, where everyone dresses for dinner and goes to the casino. It's a bit like James Bond, with a similar line in name dropping fancy food and drink and flash fifties brand names. A large proportion of the final third is occupied by a sojourn of rural Essex, where, away from the bright Mediterranean sunshime, the horror gets ramped up to apocalyptic levels.

In fact, it's interesting how Wheatley holds back any overt paranormalism until the final movement of the plot. What comes is all all the more effective because of this initial restraint, and Wheatley does a great line in suspense all the way through.The sequence where John Fountain attempts to infiltrate Comte de Grasse's yacht where Christina is being held is a fantastic example of balancing protagonsist action with antagonistic reaction to keep the reader on the edge of their seat regarding the outcome.

I liked the eccentric characters that populate this novel. Anna Fountain is middle-aged lady crime novellist with a taste for weapons; her son john Fountain is a two-fisted interior designer who pays careful attention to the decor of every setting; most of the heavy lefting is done by MI5 agent Bill Verney, known throughout as "C.B." or "Conky Bill" on account of his huge nose.

I enjoyed this a good deal. It makes me wonder why I don't get on with more modern iterations of the thriller and crime novel. Maybe I enjoy the camp? Like fantasy, it seems to throw the absurdity of it all into sharp releif, like an exceptionally well worked parody.

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