I began my review of this novel by re-reading a few extracts of the reviews of my predecessors.
‘I love it how a warning is given to skip the boring/political part early on in the book’
Take heed, this is sound advice! I’ll get back to this later.
‘It’s a cracking good story - in particular, the account of Hillary's attempts to escape from his coffin is quite outstanding’.
‘I think the coffin episode is one of Wheatley's finest horror moments’
I very much agree.
Sir Gifford Hillary or Giff, as he is affectionately known to his friends is 42 years old and in prison awaiting trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. He is six foot one inch tall in his socks.
He and his wife Ankaret (26), live in the family mansion, Longshot Hall, Lepe, a comfortable late Georgian house, with beautiful views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. (Longshot was twelve miles from Lymington). In 1939 he joined the RAF and became a pilot. From his prison cell he recounts the events that have brought him to this awful situation.
It all starts with a phone call from the Minister of Defence (Sir Charles) who asks Gif to come and see him. The Minister explains to Gif the fundamental change of Warfare; specifically, ’Do we stay with the traditional style of warfare that was used during the war or do we spend substantially more money on modern nuclear weapons?’ The next 1000 words (pages 22-40 Hutchinson Hardback) are used to explain future strategies and measures for countering the threat of Soviet aggression.
(Back to the story)
Gif, being a major shareholder of a standard Navy Submarine building Company is being asked by the Minister to persuade the other shareholders to join him in a refusal to accept the Navy contract, in order to promote the ‘Nuclear’ approach to warfare which he genuinely believes is the right way forward. The minister impresses upon him that this request has not come from the Ministry but from Gif.
The request would obviously be a loss to the company but Gif (like the Minister) is sure of the ‘greater good and passes the details on to the remainder of the major shareholders. This doesn’t go down very well as you may imagine.
The next 12 pages give full (and I mean full) details of the discussions/arguments of the six board members he has to try and persuade into joining him in refusing a valuable order for purely patriotic reasons.
The major question from the other board members is ‘Where did you get all this information from’ Gif manages to avoid answering. After the meeting they all go away to think about the choice.
The most junior of the directors of the company is Wing Commander Johnny Norton (Gifs nephew) who would accept the proposal on Gifs say so, whatever the situation if Gif wanted it.
Owen Evans is a scientist that Gif had employed to work for the benefit of the company and it suited Gif and Ankaret to let him live in a part of the house to enable the work to be close at hand.
He had invented a ray which would enable death to insects or animals alike. Other than humane killing there seemed no obvious use for it. Owen was however keen to show Gif what it could do. He tests it on a rabbit and it dies instantly.
He then shoots Gif with the Ray Gun. Gif could see his body on the floor.
Afterwards, Owen (being somewhat deluded said he believed that Ankaret and he had jointly agreed with this course of action so that she and he could pursue their ‘Friendship’.
Ankaret is adamant that she hadn’t encouraged him and returns the compliment by killing Owen with a steel rod. “Take that for Giff” she cried, you killed the only man I’ve ever loved......I’d have tried to kill you with your filthy death ray had it been working...Get down to Hell where you belong, and stay there” (Giff was watching all this in his ‘Ka’ form. Ankaret subsequently decides to forge a letter in Gifs name stating that he had heard that Owen and she were having an affair. The letter goes on to say that Gif had taken up the steel rod and killed Owen. Gif then states that whilst the letter may protect her, he would be locked up in Broadmoor for life, so he plans to drown himself in the Solent.
Gif had always had a terror of being buried alive and so instructions on his will stated that the lid of the coffin should not be screwed down; that air holes should be bored in its ends and that the family vault should not be closed until one week after his coffin had been lowered into his grave.
Gif is trying to get used to his new situation and desperately wants to get in touch with a medium so that he can communicate the true facts of the death ray murder. This proves to be very difficult.
In the meantime the house has a major fire and the death ray is totally destroyed so no proof that it ever existed.
Johnny manages to locate a ‘tart’ called daisy that Johnny used to visit prior to meeting his fiancée. She is also something of a medium. She tells Johnny that Gif is not dead. Johnny tells her, “He must be, I fished the body out of the Solent. It was definitely him”. Daisy says, “Maybe you did see him and think him dead but he wasn’t dead and isn’t dead.
Ankaret is found dead in her room at Longshot.
Johnny and Sue go to the cemetery in Hampshire and look inside the coffin; Gifs body has five days growth on it and the skin is as fresh and pink as on the night it had crumpled to the floor under the shock of Evan’s death ray.
Meanwhile, Gif has managed to overhear a conversation in Sir Charles’ house that members of his household staff are in fact spies and trying to kill him by poison but how does he communicate this to him? It seems strange that a ‘Ka’ has to get public transport but he does and takes the next bus to Alton then another to Basingstoke followed by a train to Waterloo.
Gifs ‘Ka’ returns to his coffin and despite great efforts can’t shift the lid as Ankaret’s coffin has now been laid on top of his.
The coffin episode begins in earnest here.
Johnny manages to get Gif out and nurse him back to reasonable health. (His hair has turned white in the meantime).
The big problem now is, ‘How can he possibly tell the truth of what happened. Who would believe him?’
Page 76 - Ankaret had ‘grey eyes’
Page 78 - The windows had been covered with Asbestos sheeting. Not allowed anymore!!
Page 110 - 112 Gif gives thought to the theory of the hereafter and the religions of the Earth.
Page 133 - The trial, an appeal, then at the end of it all ‘Jack Ketch’ putting a rope around his neck. This is a new one on me!! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Ketch
Page 143 - 144 DW refers to a family name in Wimbledon who lived in one of those large Victorian houses that used to abound in the wealthier suburbs of London. The name Wilks also appears in TDRO. In this case DW refers to a family who were the London agent for a Lancashire cotton firm. (Any connection?)
Page 236 - Johnny takes Daisy for lunch at “The Clarendon, that fine old coaching Inn on Hammersmith Broadway which still maintains an excellent restaurant.”
The Clarendon, 5 Hammersmith Broadway. Previously known as The Goat and The Suspension Bridge. It was a was a very large 1930s public house with attached function rooms built in the Art Deco style, and it stood on the corner of the Hammersmith one way system until it was demolished in 1988 to make way for the new Hammersmith Broadway Centre.
. The ‘Klub Foot’ was held in the main ballroom on the first floor, which held around 900 people.
(Tried to find a photo of this place without success.
Page 321 - This is the classic chapter where Gif is incarcerated and totally convinced that he will die. Superb stuff. Apart from the regulation ‘info dumps’ this is a terrific book. The Coffin scene is a classic.
P.S. Phil Baker DW’s biographer, informs us that DW was certain that he was going to die at the age of sixty. This is presumably why he issued this book when he did in 1956 (in his fifty ninth year!!!) Strangely enough I used to think exactly the same (no, I’m not making this up) My mother died at 59 and my father died at 60.
I am now sixty one and therefore looking to emulate Dennis Wheatley and go on to reach 80 at least. However I suppose I had better start drinking substantially more cigarettes, cigars and drinking substantially more alcohol in order to achieve this necessary goal!!