Occasionally, I just have a feeling about a book. I’ve read a number of novels by the author Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) and have generally been impressed. Way back in 2008 I favorably reviewed Wheatley’s supernatural thrillers The Devil Rides Out (1934) and The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948) as well as his bizarre adventure novel They Found Atlantis (1936). Not long afterwards I picked up a copy of one of Wheatley’s most famous novels, To the Devil – a Daughter (1953):
Oddly, however, though To the Devil – a Daughter looked to be another entertaining Satanic thriller like Rides Out and Toby Jugg, I found myself curiously unable to dive into the book. On numerous occasions when I’ve been looking for something new to read, I passed over Daughter or even picked it up off the shelf and started to read the first chapter. I never got very far, however: was it intuition, or was I just not in the mood for that sort of story?
The novel begins innocently enough on the French Riviera. Molly Fountain, an aging author of mystery thrillers, has retired to the region to focus on her writing. Her attention is diverted, however, by the arrival of a mysterious new neighbor — a young woman who lives alone, has no guests, stays indoors all day long and goes out for long walks at night. When Molly’s curiosity finally leads her to meet the young woman — Christina Mordant — the mystery only deepens. Christina has been brought to the Riviera from England by her father, who has informed her that her life is in danger and that she must remain hidden until a precise date in the next few weeks to assure her safety. Even more strange, Christina’s personality seems to completely change at night, and she goes from an innocent young woman to a cunning and even savage temptress. To top it off, she quickly reveals that Christina isn’t even her real name!
Christina is in danger from unknown villains, and under the influence of unknown forces. Molly quickly agrees to help her, and calls in reinforcements: her son, John, and an old colleague from the British Secret Service, Colonel Verney. The situation rapidly transitions from a simple mystery to a deadly conflict, as forces with nearly limitless resources track down Christina and seek to put her under their power. Thanks to an unholy pact made long ago, Christina is the target of a Satanic cult that seeks to use her to fulfill a monstrous prophecy. Molly, John and Verney must race to both protect and rescue her from a truly horrific fate.
Overall, the novel plays out as a fast-paced game of cat and mouse between the protagonists and the Satanic villains. There are twists and turns, battles and escapes. The action alternates between France and England, as the heroes travel to the latter location seeking answers.
The story is enjoyable enough, and very reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier novel, The Devil Rides Out. That was, I believe, part of the problem with Daughter: it was too reminiscent, and there didn’t seem to by anything particularly new in it. Even the title was a disappointment, at least to me. I interpreted it to mean one thing, though in fact it meant something different, and less interesting from my point of view (though to be fair it does have a clever double meaning).
Wheatley’s politics are quite a distraction in this novel, as in his earlier ones. As I’ve noted previously, Wheatley was very much an elitist and vehemently anti-communist, and his politics bleed into his writings quite obviously. For instance, consider this extended rant early in the novel, starting with Molly:
“I can’t think why our people continue to allow themselves to be half starved by their Government. I’m sure it isn’t necessary.”
“I can answer that one.” John’s voice was bitter. “It’s due to the Socialists and their insistence on continued bulk buying by the nation. That may have been necessary during the war, but by forcing it on us for six years afterwards they destroyed the whole organisation that had been built up over centuries of private firms importing our food from the best markets at the best prices. It will be years before the incredible muddle they made can be unsorted.”
What, pray tell, does this have to do with developing the characters and furthering the plot? Absolutely nothing! Wheatley seems to have just wanted to rail on against socialism. This is also not the only discussion of such things in the book.
In fact, as I understand it, Wheatley actually believed in Satanic conspiracies and was convinced that there was an unholy alliance between Satanists and communists. This may have been a compelling idea for a story back in the 1950s, but today is seems rather childish and outdated.
Speaking of outdated, Wheatley’s morals also seem rather outdated to a modern reader. I have mentioned that Christina has a dual personality in the story, being innocent and demure in the day and passionate and daring in the evening. Of course, her evening behavior — boldly visiting a casino at night, and kissing a man she barely knows — it treated as extremely shocking, though it really just seems to be the behavior of a mature woman. Conversely, daytime Christina’s naivety and childishness is treated as being good and proper. I found the depiction to be very archaic.
One other thing bugged me about Daughter. Molly Fountain is described as a former British Secret Service administrator, and in her Riviera retreat she has amassed a collection of espionage weapons, including pistols, brass knuckles, and even more dangerous equipment. She grows a huge and disturbing desire to get to test out some of her “toys”:
As John tucked away the cosh, C.B. turned to Molly. Relieving her of the smaller automatic, which she had been just about to slip in her bag, he said in a tone of mild reproof, “Now, ducks, I really can’t allow you to go around shooting people.” But slipping out the magazine he handed it back to her and added, “Lord forbid that I should rob you of all your fun. You can point it at anyone you like now, and it’s a small beer to a magnum of champagne that it will prove every bit as effective.”
“Oh, really, Bill!” she pleaded. “Can’t I have just one bullet in the chamber, in case I get a chance to fire it? I do want to see how much light the flash gives.”
Molly’s light-hearted nonchalance towards deadly weapons was extremely off-putting to me; I was reminded of the similarly indifferent protagonist of Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, who cheerfully boasts about his job developing chemical weapons. By the end of Daughter, Molly has actually used one of these weapons to kill many people. Though arguably justified, her enthusiasm for the act is disturbing.
To the Devil – a Daughter is undeniably a classic, and was even made into a movie in 1976 that featured none other than the great Christopher Lee as the villain. It has some great scenes in it, in particular an early visit by Colonel Verney to the villain’s Satanic altar. However, it does read rather dated to me, and it covers ground that Wheatley himself had already well trampled by the time he wrote it.