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The Dennis Wheatley 'Museum' - Instant success as an author

Instant success as an author

1932 was a desperate year for Dennis Wheatley. It was bad enough having to sell his wine business to Fearon Block, but he was then treated like a junior in the new firm. All his original ideas were shot down in flames, and to add insult to injury, although he was still nominally a director, any order he took worth more than £50 had to be countersigned by one of the other directors.

Worse was to come. With the blessing of the elderly head of the firm, DW and Joan had gone to France for a belated honeymoon, but on their return he was accused of having swindled the firm by dishonestly including his personal overdraft of £4,000 among his old firm's debts. Lawyers were summoned, DW was suspended as a Director, barred from the premises, and told he was not to return without further permission.

DW went home and broke the news to Joan. Together they drove round to his office; he correctly assumed they would not change the locks until the next morning and he had time to go through his desk drawers and remove his personal papers and other bits and pieces.

DW's friends stood by him and took DW and Joan out for lunches and dinners and gave them encouragement, but his situation was precarious. He still had substantial debts, including the rental of some cellars in Kensington that were now unused and had not been part of the rescue deal.

It was Joan, according to DW's later recollections, who helped save him from this hell. One day DW showed her some short stories he had written for fun years before, and she suggested "Why don't you write a book. I'm sure you could".

As the exhibits that follow show, DW had in fact tried his hand at writing a number of times before. He had been the dormitory story teller at school, and had been writing short stories on-and-off since the age of thirteen He had even tried his hand at a novel ("Julie's Lovers") to while away the boredom while he was guarding an ammunition dump in war-torn France. His father had the novel typed, but it never found a publisher.

The book DW wrote at Joan's instigation was a crime novel later published as "Three Inquisitive People". In it, a thinly disguised version of his step-father Sir Louis Newton (the former Lord Mayor of London his mother married in 1930) was cast as the villain, and his mother as the victim.

Joan typed the book, it was finished by July, and through various connections it was passed to the famous agent Bill Watt. It was accepted for publication by Hutchinsons on 23rd August.

In October, DW had another stroke of good fortune. Going through a mass of papers DW alighted on a carbon copy of a list of liabilities which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his personal overdraft had been properly declared in his negotiations with Fearon Block. He was off the hook.

By now DW had got the writing bug firmly in his veins, and as well as some further short stories, he set about writing a new book. Called "The Forbidden Territory", it had the same characters as his first one - the Duke de Richleau, Richard Eaton, Rex Van Ryn and Simon Aron - and was a tale of espionage and romance set in Soviet Russia. Both DW and Hutchinsons considered it a better book, so it was published first.

DW had demonstrated his flair for publicity as a wine merchant, and he demonstrated it again in marketing the Forbidden Territory. He had two thousand postcards illustrated with the book's endpapers made up and sent them out to everyone he knew, and wrote long letters to friends and acquaintances telling them about the book and asking them to buy it or to request a copy from their local library.

In addition, when the book came out, and most unusual in those days although common now, he visited booksellers and asked them to stock the book.

The results exceeded his wildest dreams - 'The Forbidden Territory' was published on 3rd January 1933 and almost immediately sold out. As DW proudly told people for many years to come, demand was such that it was reprinted seven times in seven weeks. He had become a bestseller overnight.

Having written a bestseller, DW decided to find out how fast he could write. Joe Links lent him a cottage near Godalming, and DW decided to see if he could emulate Edgar Wallace by writing a book in a week. He failed, but managed to write 'Such Power Is Dangerous' in just over a fortnight. He did not seriously intend the book for publication, but Hutchinsons pressed him for anything else he had written which they could publish in the summer. With misgivings he passed it over to them. It came out in June, some six months after 'The Forbidden Territory', and to DW's relief it sold well.

His third book was the first of only two books he wrote of historical non-fiction, "Old Rowley" as it was named was a light biography of King Charles II. DW hoped it might be included in a series of Royal Biographies being produced by Peter Davies, but it was rejected because he was insufficiently well known. This turned out for the best. Perhaps surprisingly, Hutchinsons took it on, and got Frank C Pape (of DW bookplate fame) to do the illustrations. Coming out in September 1933, again it sold well.

Having published three books in 1933, DW was to publish the same number in 1934.

The first of these, 'Black August', was a story of a red revolution in England some time in the future, and it was written with great care. If 'Such Power is Dangerous' took two weeks, 'Black August' took forty. It is notable for introducing DW's next major hero, Gregory Sallust - based on DW's dear, late, friend Gordon Eric Gordon-Tombe.

After 'Black August' was out of the way, DW and Joan felt they needed a break, so accepting an invitation from Joan's brother Bino, they sailed off to South Africa for an extended holiday.

The result was a novel set in South Africa called 'The Fabulous Valley' after a legendary valley full of gems. DW agreed with a reviewer who said he should have made up his mind whether he was writing a thriller or a guide book, but the public lapped it up.

Something remarkable happened on the way out to South Africa. DW had an idea for his next novel, which was to have as its backdrop the Occult ...