Back when I was a tweenager, you know when everything was in black and white, Dennis Wheatley was an incredibly popular author. In fact in the 1960s he was selling up to a million books a year, yet today only a few of his titles remain in print. I remember avidly devouring a battered paperback edition of the supernatural thriller The Devil Rides Out at age 11 or 12 and going on to read whichever of his books I could scrounge from relatives bookshelves and jumble sales.
Despite his reputation for tales of the occult, most of Wheatley’s works were fairly straight forward thrillers, all of them meticulously researched. I remember seeing an interview with Wheatley on a paperback book show hosted by Melvyn Bragg where he described how he kept receipts, menus, guidebooks and brochures from his travels all bagged up in his cellar to use as reference material for when he was writing. Having read many of his espionage books set in the 1930s and 40s it was easy to imagine the world of the wealthy playboys of that era having adventures in places as exotic as Istanbul or Rio and I honestly believe that I learnt a lot of useful information from his Roger Brook stories set around the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
Wheatley’s heroes were invariably like himself, a product of his time and wealthy upbringing; They’d generally be upper middle class ‘throughly decent chaps’ who are keen supporters of the King, Empire and class structure and I imagine that is probably one of the reasons that he is so little read today along with his politically unsound attitudes towards women, foreigners and people with disabilities. Women in particular would be used and discarded throughout each series of books whenever the hero got tired of them.
I hadn’t read one of Wheatley’s novels for quite some time when I came across this 1952 edition of Star of Ill Omen. Now most of Wheatley’s output up until that time had been either historical or espionage thrillers, but I can just imagine Wheatley’s agent saying to him ‘Dennis old chap these tales of bug-eyed monsters are proving ever so popular these days’ and Dennis going off and sitting himself down at the typewriter.
The story concerns Kem Lincoln, former commando and British secret agent who gets kidnapped by Martians while investigating Argentina’s secret nuclear programme. along with Kem the Martians nab an Argentine rocket expert who worked with the Nazi’s at Peenemunde and his wife who Kem had already seduced on the boat from Europe. On Mars they discover a dieing arid world with a two tier society of humanoid worker drones and insect supervisors. Needless to say the evil insects are after humanity’s nuclear secrets and they have already kidnaped a group from the Soviet nuclear programme who Kem’s group end up working with to plot their escape.
Yes it’s all very silly and quite how the bee-beetles managed to build flying saucers capable of interplanetary travel without coming by the destructive power of the atom bomb did seem to be a major plot hole, although it’s not quite as hard to believe as the positively daft escape plan hatched between Kem and the Russians where they plan to steal the nuclear bomb and threaten to use it on the Martian hive if they won’t fly them home! With the obvious lack of primary source reference to pad out the narrative Wheatley introduces a lot of what would then have been the latest ideas and ‘facts’ about Mars and the other planets of the Solar System into the conversations between the characters. Unfortunately the way it the dialogue is structured makes them sound like very pompous boring people.
The Russian group include a former Nazi scientist with a facial disfigurement who typically becomes the villain of the subplot to use the Martian bomb on London after they escape from Mars and a female geologist who supplies Kem with a bit of uninhibited rough sex. Overall I found all the characters to be rather unlikable, however the biggest problem with this book is Wheatley’s vehemently anti-communist diatribes which just drone on and on at every opportunity at the expense of the plot. No matter what your politics they just become boring.
So overall I’d say read this as a cold-war curiosity rather than for sheer enjoyment. It’s not nearly as much fun as one of Wheatley’s Roger Brook historical adventures or Gregory Sallust spy novels.