Friday, March 15, 2013

FFB: The Man Who Missed the War - Dennis Wheatley

For some time now I've been meaning to give a small tribute to Dennis Wheatley whose black magic thrillers I greatly admire.  But the first post on Wheatley will be on a book described by Jessica Salmonson as "a lost race extravaganza." It is indeed! Once having read The Man Who Missed the War (1945) it is difficult to shake the fantastical scenes from memory.  In only 288 pages Wheatley manages to tell a story that spans eight years and includes a spectacular shipwreck during wartime, an ordeal by sea, an attack by giant land crabs, a journey to Antarctica, and an evil mind controlling lost race of descendants of Atlantis who are responsible for the rise of the Nazi party. Extravaganza is an understatement, I think. The book is a mini epic displaying Wheatley's still fervent imagination and crammed with more action than a book twice its length.

My edition has an intriguing publicity blurb giving the reader an explanation not only for Wheatley's absence from the bestseller lists of Britain, but insight into his contributions during World War 2.  He was for three years "a member of the Joint Planning Staff in the Offices of the War Cabinet" where he was privy to classified information.  While working there he chose to go on hiatus as a spy novelist and he did not want to be tempted to borrow from reality. The preface further explains:
...he felt it a wise precaution to refrain form chronicling...further thrilling deeds until a little time [had] elapsed for major war secrets to be given to the public through official releases and war histories.
Dennis Wheatley, circa late 1930s
Instead of continuing his usual espionage novels with Gregory Sallust, Duke de Richelieu and Julian Day, he decided to write this tale of a Philip Vaudall who misses the war through a series of bizarre escapades, death defying adventures, and a fantastic discovery at the South Pole. During the eight years from shipwreck at sea to landing at the Antarctic Philip will spend most of his time with Gloria, a spunky survivor intent on getting back to America. Through chance and Fate, however, she becomes Philip's companion, advisor, and common law wife. They even manage to raise a family over the course of the book. All this despite being held prisoner by a tyrant of a king who rules over a pygmy race of slaves.

Is this enough to whet your appetite?  Those among you who scoff at this kind of adventure novel would be missing out as much as Philip Vaudall.  I found a passing reference denigrating the book in Antarctica in Fiction by Elizabeth Leane who called it "a very forgettable fantasy."  I am here to countermand that slur! I found it to be one of those incredible yarns so brimming with imagination and the surreal as to be fairly intoxicating. Revealing any further details of the dense plot would deprive any armchair adventurer from revelling in its remarkable pages.

Luckily, this book and nearly every other book in Wheatley's output are available in multiple editions, both paperback and hardcover, all of them affordable.  Wheatley is an acquired taste but his fiction has been wrongly disparaged for decades due to the revelations by biographers of his political and personal beliefs.  Some may find it hard to separate the man from his work. I am not one of them.  True fiction lovers who dare to sample any of his early adventure novel, but in particular The Man Who Missed the War, may just find themselves in awe of the depth of his imagination. Fantastic, outrageous, even ridiculous -- call it what you will -- it's a enviable achievement for a writer to let himself go to the edge the way Dennis Wheatley always did.

For more info on The Man Who Missed the War visit this website. It's not so much a review as it is an in- depth plot summary that is spoiler laden. Caveat lector. And for everything you ever wanted to know about the author stop by the absolutely awesome Dennis Wheatley Website.  I'd start in the museum section if I were you. But be warned -- I was there for two and half hours last night!

2 comments:

  1. I remember dabbling with some of his books in my teens but must admit (and apologies in adavance) I found them both silly and a bit of a drag - but it's been decades (ahem) so perhaps time to reconsider - i've certainly never read this one! Thanks John, as ever.

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  2. Well, he certainly wrote a lot of books. At the Dennis Wheatley website, I found the end papers and the maps section interesting. Also the images of paperback editions. I look forward to other posts on this author.

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