As a lifelong enthusiast of supernatural and occult fiction I've tried at various times to enjoy Dennis Wheatley's books, with little success. But I know enough about the history of magic to recognise the crucial role that Wheatley played in shaping the occult imagination of the 20th century, and so, somewhat daunted by its 700-page girth, I began reading Phil Baker's biography of the man who put smoking jackets on Satanists and made black magic seem like a wise career choice for many a dreaming teen.
I needn't have worried - this is one of the most entertaining books I've read in years and also one of the most lucidly fascinating and effortlessly informative. In a tone that is alternately warm and wry, sympathetic and scandalous, Baker transports us into a bygone world of genteel bigotry, social climbing, institutionalised xenophobia and the fear of the devil himself. Wheatley himself is portrayed as an engaging product of pre-war Britain, one who sought in his fiction to reflect the world as he thought it ought to be, but found that world slipping away from him even faster than he could knock out novels.
But Baker's book is about more than just Wheatley himself. We learn a great deal about the man and his times through the other characters he comes into contact with - prominent among them his mentor, the Niven-esque underworld chancer Eric Tombe, and a supporting cast of upper class fascists, eccentrics and occultists - some of them, like MI5 founder Maxwell Knight and Tank Pioneer Captain John Fuller, all three at once.
I was genuinely sad to see Wheatley go at this wonderful book's end and, as a measure of the biography's success, I was so flushed with enthusiasm for Dennis and all his works, that I immediately bought a copy of The Devil Rides Out and began reading it. I gave up after 30 pages.