The Forbidden Territory (Dennis Wheatley)

This was a smash hit in 1933 for its first time author. And he never looked back. By the 1960s he was selling a million books a year. He was never ‘big’ in America though, and with his elitist views and prudish characters, Wheatley’s name has faded into near obscurity now. As well as being well written from a technical perspective—plot, story, dialogue, exposition, The Forbidden Territory is also an interesting window on the late British Empire. For this reason, if no other, the books of Dennis Wheatley are worth reading. If you have a warm fire and a comfortable reading chair, this slim novel should provide a top-hole evening of very British entertainment: wealthy debonair characters (resolutely heterosexual) tanning the hide of uppity foreigners. It almost makes one wish for the return of the British Empire.

Duke de Richleau isn’t a young man. Already he is in his sixties, but a nimble sixty-something year old all the same. Yes, he does have three young sidekicks, Rex, Simon and Richard, but that doesn’t mean that de Richleau is pushed aside or to the back of the queue. No, he is at the front, leading. Not only is Richleau a man of action but of brains as well. The Duke is good with a gun, deadly with a blade and uses cunning, guile and psychological mind games to win the day. Although his fellow ‘musketeers’ are younger and more vital, the Duke is the one they follow. And despite his predicament, the Duke always seems to be well dressed and cuts a dashing figure for a gentleman of his age. Throughout this novel I kept getting whispers of Indiana Jones and amazed that Wheatley had created a version of him about fifty years before the film! The premise of Wheatley’s debut is hidden treasure (my link to Indiana Jones).

The Duke and his men voyage to Russia to find Rex who had set off to find this treasure but has not been heard from for months. Rumour says Rex was found in the ‘forbidden territory’ and imprisoned. It is now de Richleau’s intention to free his comrade. Wheatley admirably conjures the cold climate of the country as well as the cold suspicion felt by the populace who fear the Ogpu: they watch everyone, especially foreign visitors. I never knew that anyone visiting Russia at that time was given a ‘guide’ and was not expected to go anywhere without them. Damned Bolsheviks…Wheatley makes it very plain that these people are more than mere guides, perfectly shown when de Richleau and Simon visit an unsavoury bar when they should have been at the theatre. The ‘guides’– plus a few of the Ogpu, manage to eventually track them down and they are not best pleased about their ‘guests’ flouting of the rules.

Wheatley’s novel is set during the rule of Stalin when he had implemented his Five Year Plans, introduced work for women as well as the five day week which led to starvation and lack of money. It is a bleak picture that Wheatley paints. There is no black magic here; this is simply a rollicking good adventure story. You do wonder how much four men can take as they appear to fall in to one trap after another. Just as you think they can see the finishing line, someone or something seemed to thwart them and set the crew on a different path of escape. ‘The Forbidden Territory’ is a great, old-fashioned thriller which even today could still translate well to the small screen. I know I have said it before, but I love de Richleau although I am still trying to figure out who could play him. The chosen actor would have to be nimble as well as carry off the aristocratic air of the Duke, mmm. Moving on…for me this book has been a hidden treasure for too long and it is good it has finally been republished, along with all his other titles by Bloomsbury Reader. Hopefully a new generation will become DW fans.

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