A near-perfect adventure story bolstered by a well-researched study of the occult; full of daring, cunning and romance.
Dennis Wheatley writes quickly and keeps the stakes high. He masterfully balances the provision of vital information and background with stake raising in the plot game. Most of his skill lies here. The storyline feels effortless despite the amount of research he manages to doll out along the way. There are those critical of his prose and dialog, and Wheatley himself even admitted as such—still nothing gets in the way of the plot or the continual and subtle way he integrates his research.
This is the second book to use his familiar cast of aristocratic do-gooders: the Duc De Richleau, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aaron and Richard Eaton. The author does a good job of balancing the characters with different strengths and weaknesses, while still providing strong moral centers for each. One of my favorite aspects of this book was the fact that the very wise and learned Duc De Richleau was not infallible and that he got things wrong at times—despite his almost superhuman knowledge of the supernatural forces the protagonists were up against.
The chief antagonist is a portly fellow named “Mocata” (a perfect name for a villain by the way). He is deliciously developed with an almost comical revulsion, and yet with sufficient charisma to corrupt as befitting his reputation. The secondary evil-doers compliment Mocata and add to the mystique and world-building of this occult-centric story. Wheatley does an okay job of keeping the female characters part of the action, but he could have done better. Princess Marie Lou serves to add to the world building with her exotic backstory, but Tanith Carlisle and Fleur feel a bit more like plot devices. Tanith does provide a sort of fatalistic, romantic subplot—but this gets a little shortchanged at the finish when it comes to a convenient end.
Some criticisms I have for this book have to do with the stakes and ending. Much of the book centers around chasing after the evil practitioners of black-magic whom are hell-bent on kidnapping and corrupting (or worse) the loved ones of our fearless group. The motivations behind this are explained satisfactorily enough. However, when the underlying goal of the ring leader is revealed and then the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance—I felt that it lacked some of the weight which it presupposed.
Here the story seemed to have a bit of the episodic feel to which it was written. The real peril which was professed did not feel quite real enough. Even though the story expands beyond the proximity of English countryside and the cast of characters grows, it’s not quite enough to give that full believability that turmoil would be felt beyond the circle of characters we’d already been introduced to.
The ending too falters a tad (as other reviewers have noted). It’s fitting enough for the story which has been woven and Wheatley introduces enough elements to set things up for the ultimate conclusion. However, the bow is tied a little too neatly and all the plotlines are wrapped up a little too conveniently. Again, here, we feel that pressing episodic feel in which the author needs to hit the “reset” button to bring things to a resolution so that all will be ready for the next installment. Like a modern-day sitcom.
Despite my criticisms, the story is fun and contains all the veracity of a Jules Verne novel, but without feeling the weight of the labor involved. A great adventure story with horror elements based thoroughly and effortlessly in a scholarly bed of research. Enjoyable and informative.
I would like to add that I have read the 2013 reprint by Bloomsbury Reader, which I suspect to contain some editing to make this work more appealing to the sensibilities of modern readers without entirely sacrificing the original prose.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).