Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors that I feel I have to apologise for enjoying because he is definitely problematic. Born in 1897 he was as conservative as it is possible to be. I first came across him when I saw the (now very dated) Devil Rides Out adaptation starring Christopher Lee and released in 1968. I’m pretty sure I read the book afterwards and loved the pacing and development in terms of plot, even if the characters were very Wheatleyan.
The man himself was a staunch supporter of imperialism and the class system all of his life, and his views permeate his novels and can’t be ignored even as the reader (OK, me) enjoys the story. And reading this one had me rolling my eyes so hard it gave me a headache, even as I read on to find out what was going to happen.
First published in 1956, the Ka of Gifford Hillary is listed in the recent set of reprints as Black Magic Book 5, though I won’t be giving anything away by pointing out that this is more of a science fiction thriller with a bit of the occult thrown in rather than a full-blown book about magic.
Gifford Hillary runs a company which builds boats and has several contracts with HM Government, and it appears that the book is going to be all about that as Wheatley takes the opportunity to air his views on the future of the British Armed Services. To be fair this is something he knows quite a bit about, given that he served in various capacities during WW2 devising strategic military deceptions to fool the enemy.
But really this is a book about a man (Gifford) killed by someone who wants to be his wife’s lover by ingenious means which leads to his soul leaving his body and floating around invisibly trying to communicate as he is (a) buried alive, (b) unable to help his wife falsely accused of his murder, (c) unable to help his young relative accused of treason because of his (Gifford’s) loose lips and (d) did I mention he was buried alive? Oh, and when he reconnects with his body he is then charged with murdering the man lusting after his wife, who was actually killed by someone else.
If you can put aside all the racism, imperialism, sexism (evidence below)
and the huge sense of entitlement based on class and wealth (evidence also below), this is actually a very interesting story. The only thing that lets it down in terms of plot is the ending, which was a little too reliant on one of the few female characters finding the one piece of evidence that will resolve the situation given that the truth, which Gifford spells out, or at least up to a point, is too fantastic to believe.
And with a single bound he was free; far too rushed given the build-up that had gone before.
Evidence for the prosecution:
On the charge of sexism:
Women cannot be judged by the same standards as men. They are much more apt to become dominated by their emotions than is the case with our sex.
On the charge of entitlement:
By it I could enter houses unseen and listen to the most intimate conversations. That at least offered a prospect of taking my mind off my own worries.
I know I’m going to read more of his books and but not for a while I think.