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The Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers

As a fellow very concerned about his place in society, Dennis Wheatley carefully cultivated friendships with quite a number of people, enough so that one kind of wonders where he found time to maintain his prodigious literary output. One of the most surprising of these was an up-and-comer named Joseph Gluckstein Links, or just “Joe” to friends like Wheatley.

Born in 1904, Links was, like Wheatley, the son of a tradesman. But the similarities ended there. Links’s father was a Jewish refugee from Hungary who owned a business that served the bottom end of the fur trade, dealing in skunk. Links didn’t have the opportunities Wheatley did to finish his education and indulge his whims as a young man-about-town in London. His mother died when he was twelve, and two years later his father learned that he was also terminally ill. With no time to spare, he pulled young Joe out of school to give him a rush course on the fur trade in general and the business he would soon need to run. “I was a sullen and unwilling pupil,” Links later wrote, but “there was the business and I jolly well had to go and earn my living at it.”

Links turned out to be possessed of a shrewd business sense. And, after such an ill-starred childhood, he was lucky at last. Fur, whatever ethical dilemmas it raises today, was exploding in the fashion world of the time; every girl wanted a fur coat, more than one if she could get them. Links was able to move his firm, Calman Links, upscale to meet this demand. Even the Great Depression didn’t stop him. By the 1930s London was the epicenter of a booming luxury fur trade, and Calman Links was one of its most prominent furriers.

As a young man Links was a friend of Nancy Robinson, the wealthy heiress to the Nugget Boot Polish fortune who, in something of a social-climbing coup for Wheatley, became his wife in 1922. It was through Nancy that the two men met, but their relationship far outlasted Wheatley’s first marriage, which ended in 1930. It was a surprising friendship because Links was Jewish; in common with so many in the British Right of this period, there was a strong streak of anti-Semitism in Wheatley’s early novels. Still, Links was urbane, cultured, witty, and discreet, and, as you might expect from one who made his living through fashion, known everywhere as a very snappy dresser. Despite his humble origins and limited education, all of this seemed to come to him effortlessly. Indeed, one might say that Links was a more natural, authentic version of the man that Wheatley worked so hard throughout his life to be. He also shared Wheatley’s taste for luxury, most notably in the form of good cigars and expensive wines. He cut such an impressive figure that not only Wheatley but most of his social circle were willing to forgive him his ethnicity. The friendship was perhaps really cemented as a lifelong one during the personal crisis that precipitated Wheatley’s becoming a writer. At this critical time Links was a huge source of comfort and support, lending Wheatley money to pay his creditors and his lawyers and a secluded cottage to get away from it all and pull his first novel together.

One night over dinner, circa 1935, Links dropped a brainstorm on Wheatley: what if they put together a murder mystery not in the form of a novel but rather as a dossier of reports and clues? Since so much of contemporary crime fiction was really about giving the reader a puzzle to solve, the trappings of the novel were beginning to seem to Links like a pointless intrusion on their real appeal. “Why can’t we just have the facts and the clues?” he theorized readers must be asking.

There had been some attempts before to present mysteries explicitly as puzzles to be solved. In 1928, Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay published the first Baffle Book, consisting of the brief descriptions of fifteen cases that the reader was expected to solve from the clues in the text. These cases read, however, like generic sketches of mystery plots before the scenery and characters were painted in, and thus played more like abstract logic puzzles than participatory mysteries. Links proposed giving readers all the atmosphere and detail of a full-fledged mystery novel, but explicitly asking her to do what had only been implied in the novels for years now: to solve the crime herself. Further, he imagined including much more than text: physical props, the actual pieces of evidence — what a later generation would come to call “feelies” — would be a key component. The dossier would end with a sealed section containing the solution, which the reader should only open when she believed she had solved the case for herself.

Wheatley was for a time unconvinced. Links was a businessman with no background in writing (or game design, for that matter). As for him, he was a writer, of course, but also a very busy one already selling plenty of books, and he had no experience or following in the already overstuffed genre of detective novels. But Links persisted, and Wheatley was finally taken with the same enthusiasm, with the rare opportunity to do something really, truly new. He took the idea to his publisher, Hutchinson. They were, unsurprisingly, very lukewarm. Producing and stuffing the dossiers with all those physical clues, not to mention typesetting telegrams, handwritten letters, and police reports, would be like nothing they had ever done before — and expensive. Yet Wheatley persisted. He was a very valuable author whom it behooved Hutchinson to keep happy, so at last they agreed — on the condition that Links and Wheatley would be willing to accept no royalties at all on the first 10,000 copies sold, and just one penny per copy after that. It’s a marker of how excited Wheatley was by the project that he agreed; he was normally always very careful to get everything financially coming to him. And so Links and Wheatley set to work, Links planning out the mystery and devising the clues and Wheatley writing the actual text. The dossier would be credited to Wheatley, with a “planned by J.G. Links” blurb inserted in smaller letters. The credits should probably have been reversed; Links had the original idea, after all, and the case at root was apparently his. Still, Links was a very private man happy to continue his life of relatively anonymous privilege. And, more practically, Wheatley’s name definitely sold books.

The result was published on July 23, 1936, as Murder off Miami.

A pleasure yacht, the Golden Gull, has just left Miami for a few days of cruising when one of the passengers, a soap magnate named Bolitho Blaine, apparently commits suicide, leading the yacht to return to port just hours after it left. You follow along with the investigation of the detective who meets the boat — through interviews, on-the-scene hunting for physical evidence, etc. In best golden-age-detective-fiction fashion, it quickly transpires that not only was Blaine murdered, but virtually everyone else on the boat has both Dark Secrets to hide and a plausible motive for wanting Blaine dead.

Detective fiction wasn’t Wheatley’s normal gig, but in an odd way he was suited for it, and probably could have done pretty well at it in an alternate reality. Much as he loved to play the cultured libertine, there was also a fussy, detail-oriented side to his personality. Sometimes the two came together in revealing if unappealing ways. His biographer Phil Baker describes a careful list he kept as a young man of every woman he had any sort of amorous contact with, from prostitutes (lots of these) to one-night-stands to proper girlfriends, along with dates and locations and a neat check next to those with which he went all the way. (When he forgot — or never had — names, he just used a shorthand description of the girl.) In Murder, he goes endlessly over suspects and times and locations and alibis, reveling in all this careful, systemic detail in an almost hackerish way; in still another reality, he might have been drawn to programming. If it is hardly revolutionary for a story of its time and genre, the solution to Murder is reasonable (at least by whodunit logic) and satisfying enough, requiring some out-of-the-box thinking that probably comes easier to people steeped in golden-age detective fiction than it did to my wife and me. We came up with a suspect based on an alibi of which the in-story detective seemed a little too trusting, but the answer of course turned out to be something else entirely.

Still, the striking aspect of Murder off Miami is not the case but how it’s presented. In addition to more prosaic text, the dossier contains telegrams, handwritten notes (some of which we had a devil of a time deciphering), photos of crime scenes and suspects, suspect police records, even a blood-stained swatch of curtain.

Like all of Wheatley’s work it’s almost defiantly of its time. For instance, there’s a poor Japanese fellow on the yacht whom no one deigns to call by his real name. He’s just “the Jap,” whom our detective hero warns not to try his “Oriental mind games” on him. Yet it’s still an interesting and unique experience today, even divorced from its historical importance. My wife and I had a lot of fun with it, even if we did fail to crack the case in the end.

Murder off Miami wasn’t something anyone knew quite how to classify. Is it a book or a game? asked reviewers and editorialists in articles that presage some of the discussion that would later swirl around the interactive fiction of Infocom and others. Luckily, Wheatley, you’ll remember, was “very good at selling” books; he tirelessly wined and dined top book buyers during the lead-up to publication to convince them to stock the dossier. Despite no real promotion other than that personally undertaken by Wheatley, Murder off Miami became a minor sensation. It ended up selling over 200,000 copies in Britain in its first year, and was eventually translated into many other languages. Always the royal watcher, Wheatley was delighted to learn that Queen Mary herself bought six copies. Naturally, Links and Wheatley soon set to work on another.

That second dossier, Who Killed Robert Prentice? (1937), is a particularly cold-blooded little number, and as comically dated as ever. Links and Wheatley have fallen afoul of the 1930s rage for Adlerian psychology; the murder victim is defined as a walking, talking bundle of inferiority complexes. Yet the case is more believable and more interesting. Solving it is a three-step process this time, of which my wife and I managed to get two correct. The evidence, meanwhile, is even more impressive than in the first dossier, including more physical props like railway tickets and stamps.

Some of the letters this time were even scented with unique perfumes, providing vital clues about their origins; sadly, this element didn’t survive its journey down through the years to us. Links and Wheatley also show a willingness to get more playful with the format. The centerpiece of the second dossier is a big fold-out newspaper that features not only articles about the case but also real advertisements from various sponsors, another demonstration of Wheatley’s nose for moneymaking opportunities.

There’s also an interview in the newspaper with Wheatley and Links themselves, who do discuss whom they think might have done the crime, but which Wheatley mainly uses as a platform to plug his books. The third dossier would continue to take advantage of Wheatley’s near celebrity in Britain, using him as a character in his own stories in a very postmodern sort of way that’s surprising for this time and this author.

Robert Prentice‘s most risque clue was a torn-up photograph of the victim cavorting with a naked woman. The reader had to assemble this, jigsaw-style, in a way that a later generation would soon be doing in a thousand graphic adventures.

The dossiers were not easy to assemble. During the height of the dossier boomlet, Hutchinson’s employed forty girls to cut swatches out of fabric and stain them, spray perfume on letters, tear corners off of envelopes, and, yes, rip up risque photographs. This hand-assembled aspect of the dossiers gives them an additional appeal today; every one is at least a little bit unique.

Robert Prentice was another sizable hit, thus spawning a third dossier for 1938, The Malinsay Massacre. Conventional wisdom holds that this is the point where the series began a dramatic decline in quality, but we didn’t really see that. It is true that the feelies have been dramatically reduced in number, to just one, an allegedly poisoned tablet. Still, said tablet is one of the most impressive of all the feelies. If one eats this tablet, one apparently learns an important clue: that it tastes like peppermint. (We weren’t going to try it after all these years and all the hands it must have passed through…)

The photos in Malinsay do look a bit low-rent, which apparently caused some conflict between the partners. Links managed the photo-shoot while Wheatley was out of town. The location he chose, a local hotel, doesn’t much look like the ancestral Scottish castle where the mystery plays out. Wheatley was very unhappy with the results upon his return.

While the rest of the third dossier contains nothing as impressive as the mock-newspaper from the second, we found the mystery itself the most believable and compelling of all — and, with a bit of thought and care, very solvable. We got this one pretty much right, a very satisfying experience. I’d imagine the experience we had with Malinsay came the closest to what Links and Wheatley envisioned when they first started thinking about making the dossiers.

About the fourth dossier, alas, the conventional wisdom is correct. In reaction to grumblings about the dearth of feelies in the previous dossier, the pair went in the other direction this time: “Five times as many clues as in any of the previous dossiers!” the cover trumpets. Unfortunately, that’s about all it’s got going for it. Produced with much less involvement from Wheatley, who was both ill at the time and getting somewhat tired of the exercise, Herewith the Clues sadly lacks his talent for weaving an interesting potboiler narrative. It has far less text than any of the other dossiers, and is the most explicitly gamelike of them all, reading more like the logic-puzzle mystery stubs of Wren and McKay than Wheatley and Links’s previous dossiers. The whole devolves into deciding which of a group of suspects can be identified as having been in a certain room at a certain time; the one who was not present must be the murderer. For the first time a scoring system is provided along with multiple sheets of paper to record your conclusions, so that “each member of the family may fill one up.” Some of the solutions are made more difficult by the cultural gulf between then and now:

Carlotta Casado can be eliminated because: Exhibit E, a sheet of Papier Poudre, Rachel shade, was found in the waste-paper basket. Carlotta is a black-haired Spaniard, with a sun-tanned skin; and none of the other women in the group even approaches a brunette type. Therefore, the Rachel shade sheet of Papier Poudre must have been used by her.

The “Papier Poudre” just looked like a blank square of stiff paper to us, and otherwise we have no idea what any of that is on about.

Other times the solutions are just stupid. Clever, but stupid.

Mug Masters can be eliminated because: Exhibit F, a screw of plain paper found in the waste-paper basket, has invisible writing on it, which at once becomes apparent if the paper is dipped in water. The writing is a personal note to Masters summoning him to the full group meeting to be held on the night of the 23rd; so obviously it was he who threw this paper into the waste-paper basket in the secret room.

Who the hell would start immersing their clues in water? We didn’t spend too much time on trying to solve this one, and when we flipped to the solution and saw stuff like that we were decidedly glad we hadn’t.

Herewith the Clues was published at a fraught historical moment, just six weeks or so before the outbreak of World War II. For all its flaws as a story and game, it’s perhaps even more interesting than the earlier dossiers as a time capsule, an artifact of a proudly snobbish upper-class London social set that was about to be changed forever by war and by the welfare state that would follow. Wheatley being Wheatley, he’s unable to resist breaking the fourth wall in the caption below the picture of each suspect to announce who is really shown there: lords, ladies, and respected society figures all.

When the war began, that was it for the dossiers. All went out of print, and, whatever appeasement sympathies they may have held in earlier lives, Links and Wheatley both joined up and devoted all their energies to the war effort. After the war, the time that had spawned the dossiers seemed to have passed. Agatha Christie’s continuing popularity aside, the detective novel changed again, away from the puzzle-box designs of the golden age to works that again placed more emphasis on realism and literary nuances. The idea of the mystery as an implied game between author and reader moved again into the background, and Wheatley went back to writing his thrillers and his occult pastiches, with only one more detour into ludic mystery. In 1953 he published a board game called Alibi, which appears to have played like a more sophisticated, narrative-rich version of the family staple Cluedo (Clue in North America). It seems that Alibi was not a success, and copies are extremely rare today. I thus don’t know much more about how it played.

Links, meanwhile went back to the fur business — and to a remarkable new career. A longtime bachelor, he finally married just as the war ended. The couple traveled to Venice for their honeymoon. Links fell in love with the city and with one of its famous sons, the landscape painter Canaletto. Over the years that followed Links cultivated both passions. Showing again that talent for moving in circles where he had by all rights no business going, this fellow who had quit school at fourteen and never attended a single class at university became perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Canaletto, writing books, speaking at countless academic conferences, and curating major exhibitions. He also wrote what has sometimes been called the greatest travel guidebook ever written, Venice for Pleasure (1966). He died in 1997 after what was by all accounts a long, varied, happy, and always discreet life.

As a major commercial success, at least in its earlier incarnations, the Wheatley/Links dossier series spawned some imitators. Most notably, William Morrow in the United States republished the first dossier as Crime File Number 1: File on Bolitho Blane, then continued the series with at least three more Crime Files written by American mystery writers. It’s worth speculating what might have happened to the budding genre had World War II not come along to disrupt it. As it was, though, the genre was not resumed after the war, going into history as a curiosity and a footnote to the careers of Wheatley and Links.

Until about 1980, that is. By that time, with the rise of Dungeons and Dragons, Adventure, and the Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s books, the idea of this sort of blending of story and game was again beginning to feel in step with the times. Hutchinson published new editions of all four dossiers to modest press notices and modest sales. After a few years, they fell out of print again. However, during that brief window when they were easily available once more, a fair number of contemporary creators found them inspiring. In an obvious response to them, Simon Goodenough published a series of three new dossiers based on Sherlock Holmes stories. You can also see a lot of the Wheatley/Links dossiers in a pair of detective board games published originally around this time by Sleuth Publications, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Gumshoe. A bit later two of the dossiers would be directly adapted into rather uninspiring computer games.

But most significantly for our purposes, one Marc Blank of Infocom picked them up, and was inspired to create Deadline, as dramatic a literary leap forward for digital ludic narrative as Zork had been a technical. Having ended this little detour into the 1930s, we’ll pick up with that next time.

(I owe huge thanks for this article to Zack Urlocker, who dug up editions of all four of the Wheatley/Links dossiers from his personal collection, shipped them to me in Norway, and refused to let me pay for any of it. Thank you again, Zack!)


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Britain’s Occult Uncle

There are some successful writers who are, as Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, “not of an age but for all time.” But there are many more who become rich and famous in their own time only to be forgotten by later generations — or, if and when recalled by academics and diehards, remembered not for their continuing resonance but as curiosities, clues to understanding those strange people who lived all those years ago. Dennis Wheatley, for four decades one of the most bankable bestsellers in the book trade, belongs to this category. Upon his death in 1977, the vast majority of his immense oeuvre went almost immediately out of print even in his native Britain, and that was pretty much that for a fellow whose books even while he was still writing them had begun to seem painfully out of joint with the times.

To modern sensibilities, Wheatley’s life story is perhaps more interesting than his fiction. Born the son of an increasingly prosperous middle-class wine merchant in 1897, he was groomed virtually from birth to take over the business from his father when the time came. In that spirit, he received a respectable if not exceptional English public-school education. Indeed, “respectable but not exceptional” is a good way to describe the young Wheatley. Thanks to his family’s growing influence, he was able to finagle an officer’s billet in World War I and, even more importantly, to get himself posted to an artillery unit rather than the meat-grinder that was the infantry. Thus Wheatley had a comparatively easy war of it, in which, in the words of his biographer Phil Baker, “he did his duty; no less, if no more.” With that behind him, Wheatley, desperately class-conscious in the way that only one of somewhat uncertain status himself (in this case the son of a tradesman) could be, devoted himself to climbing society’s ranks while dabbling just enough in the business to keep his father soothed.

In 1927 his father died, leaving Wheatley in sole charge of the business. Unfortunately, thanks to the Great Depression that arrived a couple of years later and perhaps also to Wheatley’s decision to refocus the business on selling only very expensive wines and liquors to the most exclusive social sets, things started to go badly. Soon Wheatley, now entering his mid-30s, was forced to sell the failing business before it collapsed entirely. Worse, the purchasers upon examining the books began to speak of irregularities with regard to the money that Wheatley personally had taken out of the business. Soon they were threatening legal action in criminal court, and Wheatley was contemplating the prospect of jail time in addition to destitution. This man who had for 35 years been exactly what you would expect him to be now made the one really unexpected, audacious decision of his life. Despite having only his boyhood love of adventure novels and some earlier, unpublished and halfhearted stabs at fiction to his credit, he would write his way out of his financial straits. And so, in 1933, Dennis Wheatley the novelist was born.

In a great bit of damning with faint praise, Baker notes that Wheatley turned out to be only “good at writing books, after a fashion,” but “extremely good at selling them.” The critics, or at least those who didn’t lunch with him at one of his clubs, delighted in eviscerating him, and for many good reasons. His prose was remarkably awful, his characters paper-thin, his politics reactionary. Wheatley was a thoroughgoing manichean. People are either Good (Tories, businessmen, military men, the aristocracy, fascists in the early years) or Evil (communists, socialists, labor, Satanists, fascists after appeasement went out of fashion amongst the British Right, still later hippies and civil-rights activists). As time went on all of these latter groups started to blend into one overarching conspiracy of Evil in his books, communists walking hand in hand with Satanists. Wheatley does not allow the possibility of equally well-meaning people who simply disagree about means as opposed to ends. There is only Good and Evil, the former usually handsome or beautiful, the latter ugly. Subtle Wheatley ain’t.

For all his failings, however, Wheatley did have a flair for exciting plotting. He knew how to layer on the unexpected twists and turns, to get his heroes in and out of jam after jam by the skin of their teeth, each more dangerous and improbable than the last. For readers who shared his politics, and probably even a fair number of guilty-pleasure seekers who did not, his books were reliable comfort reads. To his credit, he never claimed them to be anything more. He replied to bad reviews with a bemused shrug, saying that he had “no pretensions to literary merit”; was “better aware than most of my shortcomings where fine English is concerned.” And anyway, he said, reading his books was at least better than going to the cinema, which was what his customers would otherwise do.

Wheatley took his customers’ wishes very, very seriously. Some of his books ended with a questionnaire, asking what they had thought of the book and what they would like to see in the next: what setting, which of his cast of recurring heroes and villains, even what percentage should be devoted to romance. Apropos this last: one other key to Wheatley’s success was his inclusion of a love story in each novel. This was thought to attract women readers — and, it must be said, he did sell far more books to women than did other writers in the traditionally male-dominated genres of thrillers and adventure stories. Wheatley wrote quickly, ensuring his fans were never kept waiting long for new material. In 1933, his first year as a working writer, he churned out an incredible three novels as well as one nonfiction book (on King Charles II of England, his personal hero) to buy himself out of his legal difficulties. After that outburst he settled into the only slightly more sedate pace of two novels per year, year after year.

But, you might be wondering, what does this fellow have to do with videogames? More than you might expect, actually. Wheatley, despite being very much a character of a different era than my usual concerns on this blog, is nevertheless important to them in two ways. One is somewhat tangential and one surprisingly direct. Let’s talk about the former today.

On Halloween, 1934, The Daily Mail began publishing a new Wheatley novel in serial form. It was called The Devil Rides Out, and concerned a cabal of Satan worshipers out to plunge the world into an at-the-time-still-hypothetical World War II by stirring up opposition to Hitler’s new Nazi regime. There are parts of the book that read just horribly wrong today. The heroes’ talisman of good, for instance, which when hung around the neck functions to protect them against the Satanists much as does garlic against vampires, is a swastika, “the oldest symbol of wisdom and right thinking in the world.” Despite — or perhaps because of — stuff like this, it’s become a kitschy classic of sorts today, the book most of the few who do bother to read Wheatley begin with — and, one suspects, usually end with.

In its own time, Devil became a sensation. Wheatley had been successful before, but Devil took him to a whole new level of fortune and fame, as Britain’s foremost popular pundit on all things occult. The book was in fact broadly if shallowly researched. Wheatley cultivated relationships with such figures as Montague Summers, a loathsome old reprobate of a priest who was convinced that witches in the medieval tradition remained a clear and present danger; and even an aging and ever more ridiculous Aleister Crowley, whose name still left many people in terror for their immortal soul but who in person was more likely to ask to borrow a fiver to feed his various addictions than anything more threatening. Crowley, Summers and a handful of other similarly dissipated, over-privileged Edwardians with too much time on their hands had in the decades before his book been largely responsible for reviving the notion of the occult, previously thought banished to the Middle Ages where it belonged, as an at least theoretically vital force again.

The problem with Satanism, at least from a certain point of view, is that there’s just not a whole lot of there there. Our perception of it through the ages is not down to any actual evidence from Satanists themselves, who seem to have barely existed if at all, but rather the fever dreams of those on the side of Good who claim to be desperate to stamp it out. From the Malleus Maleficarum down to the works of Summer, the scholarship on Satanism and witchcraft consists entirely of what the Good side of the hypothetical debate speculated that those on the side of Evil must be doing. The entire scholarly edifice is built on sand. Wheatley based much of the detail in Devil on Summers, who drew from the Malleus Maleficarum, which drew from… what? The whole is a chain of conjecture and imaginings (and, one suspects, fantasizing) of what a genuine cult of Satanists must be like if anyone ever met one. Direct experience is entirely absent. As we’re about to see, Wheatley just added another link to that chain.

As already described, Wheatley was always eager to give his public exactly what they wanted. And what they wanted, judging from sales of The Devil Rides Out and the excitement it generated, was more novels about Satanism and the occult. And so for the remainder of his life, interspersed with his tremendous output of other novels, he continued to churn them out. He also continued to cultivate his persona as “Britain’s occult uncle,” one on the side of Good who nevertheless had access to Dark Secrets that could be dangerous to lesser men. And he continued the bizarre, and increasingly ridiculous, practice of mixing worldly politics with spiritual struggle as he aged and the world around him agreed less and less with his traditionalist Tory values. “Is it possible that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?” he asked in 1971. The answer, as far as he was concerned, was a quite definite yes. He even advocated for a reinstatement of Britain’s anti-witchcraft laws, despite the last of them having only recently been taken off the books. Late in his life Wheatley almost seemed to morph into the now-deceased Montague Summers. He published a non-fiction treatise of his own, The Devil and All His Works, and sponsored the “Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult,” a series of paperback editions that ranged from classic literature (Stoker’s Dracula, Goethe’s Faust) to the ramblings of Crowley and his ilk.

It’s hard to say to what extent Wheatley really believed this nonsense. He loved to sell books, and, while his books on other subjects were very successful, this stuff sold a whole order of magnitude better. It’s hard to understand why, if he thought Satanism a genuine danger to society, he continued to make it sound so damn appealing to so many of his readers via his novels, all of which featured a nubile, naked young virgin almost deflowered on an altar of Satan or similarly charged mixtures of black magic, sex, and sadism. Readers were not clucking over them as warnings about the spiritual dangers around them; no, they were getting off on the stuff. Wheatley therefore shouldn’t have been surprised when one of the elements of modern culture he hated most, a rock band, drew from his work — or, rather, pretty much blatantly ripped him off.

The band in question, Coven, was the first to really cement the link between Satanism and rock and roll. They were, however, far from one of the more talented bands to be accused of witchcraft. Their first album, the ponderously titled Witchcraft Destroys and Reaps Souls (1969), was a very contrived affair, largely the brainchild not of the band (who frankly don’t strike me as the brightest sorts) but of the producer, Bill Traut. He hired an outside songwriter, James Vincent, to put most of the album together:

“Bill brought me a large box full of books about witchcraft and related subjects. He told me to read them and start writing some songs … Sometime before the sun came up, I had completely written all the material requested of me for the entire album.”

It is, as you might imagine from a gestation like that, pretty dire stuff, like Jefferson Airplane with less impressive instrumentalists and very generic songs (apart from the EEEVVVVIIILLLL lyrics, of course). The most interesting track is not a song at all, but rather the 13-minute recording of an allegedly “authentic” Black Mass that concludes the album.

I have to put “authentic” in quotes in the context of a Black Mass because it’s very debatable whether there is such a thing. All evidence would seem to indicate that the Black Mass is not an ancient, timeless ritual, but an invention of the twentieth century. Further, it seems that none other than Wheatley’s erstwhile mentor Montague Summers may have been the man who invented it. Before suffering a spiritual “shock” that led him to God, Summers was himself a budding Satanist, one of the community of occult dabblers that swirled around Aleister Crowley. In his superb Lure of the Sinister, Gareth Medway accords a ritual conducted by Summers at his home in 1918 as “the earliest Black Mass for which there is reliable evidence.” Indeed, the younger Summers was quite a piece of work. A recollection from this era given by an acquaintance, from Baker’s Wheatley biography:

James was not invited to the Black Mass again, but he continued to see Summers socially: heavily made up and perfumed, drunk on liqueurs, Summers would cruise the London streets in search of young men. One day Summers confided his particular taste: “He was aroused only by devout young Catholics, their subsequent corruption giving him inexhaustible pleasure.”

There is evil here, but its source is not the supernatural entities the later Summers was so eager to stamp out.

So, we now have the older Summers feverishly describing and condemning the “ancient” ritual of the Black Mass which he himself likely invented as a younger man. Next, inevitably, we have Wheatley putting all of the “authentic” details into his novels. And then… then along comes Coven. Their recorded Black Mass is hilarious in its own right; for starters, the priest of Satan serving as master of ceremonies has the stentorian voice of a radio DJ, a far cry from the Voice of Evil one might expect. It gets even funnier, however, when you realize that virtually the entire ritual is plagiarized from one of Wheatley’s novels, The Satanist (1960).

The Coven album generated just the sort of controversy it had been intended to provoke. More so, actually; the outcry was so extreme that their record company pulled the album from shelves entirely in fairly short order. Thus in this case the real object of the endeavor, which was (in common with so much of the Satan industry) to make lots of money off cheap sensationalism, didn’t quite pan out. However, other bands, particularly in the emerging genre of heavy metal, now began dabbling in occult subject matter, most notably Black Sabbath. (In an odd coincidence, Coven’s bassist was named Oz Osbourne and the first song on their album was called “Black Sabbath.”) Most of these bands simply wrote about Satanism and the occult — with the usual dodgy research — rather than claiming to be full-on devil worshipers. Mostly it was all just silly fun perfect for teenage boys, and some of it was even pretty good; I’m still known to spin the occasional Iron Maiden. Yet it caused a firestorm of fear and anger from conservative Christians and orthodox Establishment-types who imagined their headbanging children being seduced to Satan through this music. What went unnoticed and unremarked, of course, was that the real source of most of the Satanic tropes they condemned was a man who was in a very real sense one of their own, Dennis Wheatley. One can make a pretty strong case that Wheatley essentially invented Satanism as it has existed in the popular imagination of the last 50 years — not a bad legacy for an otherwise forgotten author.

So, let’s see if we can bring this around to games at last, by looking at the urtext of ludic narrative, Dungeons and Dragons. There’s actually very little occult influence in the original edition of the game. It was, as I described in an earlier post, a product of dedicated wargamers with an interest in fantasy literature; there was nary an occultist among them. Later sourcebooks would begin to introduce somewhat generic devils and demons, and even to outline entire religious pantheons via the Deities and Demigods tome, but TSR was smart enough to stay well clear of any sort of obviously Christian mythos; certainly you won’t find stats for Satan in any of the Dungeons & Dragons rule books. Still, demons and devils and other horrors were in the game, as were spells. Many apparently found these elements hard to place outside of a Christian context. Nor was the artwork always helpful; in a picture, an evil efreeti from the Elemental Plane of Fire and Satan look pretty much the same.

Further, there was a substantial crossover between the kids listening to all this allegedly Satanic heavy-metal music and those playing D&D. While the lure of the forbidden (i.e., Satanism) was certainly part of heavy metal’s appeal, it also gave them grand themes of heroism and villainy, fantasy and history — all just the thing for teenagers looking for an escape from the trials and tribulations of high school. D&D, of course, gave them some of the same things. When concerned elders worried over the lurid heavy-metal posters on Junior’s bedroom walls, then saw that he was also playing this odd game of imagination full of spells and devils, and with similarly lurid artwork… well, it wasn’t a difficult leap to make. D&D and heavy metal must be the new face of Satanism — which, as we have seen and although no one seemed to realize it, didn’t actually have an old face.

The wrath of these crusaders would largely come down on D&D the tabletop RPG, as opposed to its computerized descendents that I’ve been writing about on this blog. Yet even they would not be immune. Richard Garriott received plenty of outraged letters accusing him of being an ambassador of Satan, particularly after Ultima III came out with its particularly Satanic-looking figure on the cover.

All of this controversy ended up playing a significant role in Garriott’s work as well as that of others, and I’ll be returning to it again in the future. However, I don’t want to move too far afield from Wheatley himself at just this moment. You see, he had yet another, completely different role to play in the field — in fact, the one I teased you with in my last post. We’ll pick that up again at last next time.


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Ludic Murder

Some time ago now I presented a definition of my term “ludic narrative” and a brief rundown of the development of the form over the course of the history of games in general, moving from the abstract games of old to games that simulated ever more specific contexts with ever more immediacy and detail, finally culminating in the arrival of Dungeons and Dragons, the first full-fledged example of ludic narrative. I want to look at history from another angle today.

All of the terms that we use to describe the sorts of works I’m usually talking about on this blog — “ludic narratives,” “story games,” “interactive fictions,” many others — pretty clearly describe them as being a fusion of two older forms, story and game. From time to time some designer or blogger or other will pop up with a condemnation that derives from this fact, claiming that ludic narratives are the unsatisfying result of splicing two very different art forms together. Stunned by this insight, the Twittering classes go to work, and so the carousel of life on the Internet goes around once again. Yet the idea that an art form is somehow illegitimate or aesthetically depraved if it subsumes other art forms is pretty absurd. During the heyday of Wagnerian opera that form was praised precisely because it incorporated within it virtually every other respectable art form extant at that time: music, theater, literature, the visual arts (in the spectacular stage designs), even architecture (ever been to Bayreuth?). So, and while it may be overly simplistic, let’s at least for today unabashedly accept the idea of ludic narrative as being woven from two strands, that of game and that of story, and let’s not judge that to be a bad thing. In that earlier post I followed the former strand to the point where it met its mate in the form of D&D. Today I’d like to look at the latter. As we’ll see, games and stories have never been complete strangers to one another.

One of the oldest literary forms of all, so old in fact that its origins are lost in antiquity, is the original fusion of game and literature, the riddle. There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between riddles and modern ludic narratives. As with a ludic narrative, a really first-class riddle must succeed as both a game, in being challenging but solvable, tempting, and, well, fun; and as a story, with writing worthy of aesthetic appreciation and some nugget of wisdom or deeper truth to convey. The Riddle of the Sphinx is one of the oldest and probably the most famous riddle in the canon, and a fine example of one that succeeds as both game and literature:

Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?

The answer, of course, is “man.” Not only is this riddle an interesting puzzle in its own right, but it conveys something about the fleeting nature of even the longest life in a lovely, metaphoric way. Indeed, in being a puzzle you must solve this riddle possibly makes you ponder that very theme more than you might if it was presented in some other form. Although it probably predates Sophocles’s Oedipus the King (429 BCE) by many years, it was embedded into that larger work of literature, something that I’ll come back to in just a bit.

While riddles, at least at their best, are definitely literary, they usually aren’t really stories. Yet there is also a definite tradition of play in even narrative-oriented “high” literature. I could trace a line from Tristram Shandy through Moby Dick and Ulysses to Gravity’s Rainbow. All are works that present themselves at least partially as puzzles to be cracked, a trend that’s increased dramatically in the wake of the Modernists and Postmodernists. (“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality,” James Joyce wrote.) Maybe I’ll try to look at that tradition at some point. For today, though, let’s set our sights on what may be the most long-lived of all traditions of gamesmanship in storytelling: the detective story, which would appear to be just about as old as jurisprudence itself.

Some versions of the Old Testament Book of Daniel include the story of Susanna, the young wife of a respected elder of the Jews who was as beautiful as she was virtuous. (It’s generally agreed that this tale, along with a few others, was added to Daniel somewhat after the original authorship, and thus its place in the Biblical canon is in some dispute. Catholic Bibles include it, Jewish and Protestant generally do not, although exhaustive editions, such as the King James, often include it with the Apocrypha.) Two other elders take a liking to Susanna. They therefore hide in the garden until she comes in to take her bath, then spring out to offer her a choice: let them have their fun with her, or else have them tell her husband that they found her in the garden with a young lover. Much to their disappointment, she cries out loudly, thus apparently opting for the second choice. They proceed to tell their lie when other villagers rush in to Susanna’s rescue, claiming that her cry was one of surprise at being caught in the act, and that the unknown young man was able to get away before he could be caught or identified. Being respected elders, they are believed. A tribune finds Susanna guilty of adultery, for which the punishment is death. As she is being led away to her fate, the procession passes by the Prophet Daniel. God comes to him at that instant, telling him that Susanna is innocent. With nary a moment to lose, Daniel rushes to stop the procession, saying that he will prove Susanna’s innocence to everyone’s satisfaction. A brief stay is reluctantly agreed to, whereupon Daniel interviews each of Susanna’s accusers separately, asking under exactly which tree Susanna had her tryst. They’ve of course failed to get their stories straight, and each names a different tree. This is proof enough for the tribune, who proceed to execute her accusers in lieu of Susanna.

In contrast to so much in the Bible, it’s odd how contemporary this story sounds to our ears. Remove the explicit prompting of God that put Daniel on the case and the determination to punish every crime with the one-size-fits-all sentence of death, and it could easily be an episode of any of a hundred crime dramas. One can imagine Columbo shambling up to each of the two elders to deliver his questions, complete with lots of mumbled asides and self-deprecations, until… gotcha! Like all those detectives to follow, Daniel essentially treats the crime as a puzzle to be solved using logic and intuition — along with in his case, being a prophet and all, just a little bit of divine guidance.

He plays detective again in another Apocrypha-banished tale, “Bel and the Dragon.” Here the king has rejected his claim that a rival god to Yahweh, the dragon god Bel, is a fraud of his priesthood. The king cites the sacrifice of meat and wine which he leaves in Bel’s sealed temple every night, which is always gone in the morning. Daniel therefore scatters ashes over the floor of Bel’s temple just after the sacrifice is placed and before the temple is sealed. Sure enough, next morning there is a trail of footprints showing how the priests entered from a secret door to retrieve the meat and wine themselves. It’s a story that could easily be a text-adventure puzzle — and a pretty good one at that.

Ancient as it is, the detective story really exploded in popularity during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the idea of Science and Rationality as an answer to all the problems of mankind was also very much in vogue. The classic modern archetype of the form, at least in English, is Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which he introduces his detective C. Auguste Dupin. There’s much about “Murders” that feels typical of Poe — the florid diction, the long philosophical digression that opens the story, the Gothic darkness that encloses it. (“It was a freak of fancy in my friend,” writes the narrator, Dupin’s version of Watson, “to be enamored of the Night for her own sake.”) Yet, surprisingly from a writer known for his obsession with irrationality and madness, Dupin is ultimately a living testimony to the power of what Poe calls “the analytical facility.” Dupin and the narrator read in the newspaper about a seemingly impossible crime: a woman and her daughter found murdered in an apartment that was still locked from the inside, and witnesses who all report hearing the assumed murderer speaking in a different language. Treating the scant physical evidence and witness reports as pieces of a logic puzzle, Dupin concludes that the murderer was in fact an escaped orangutan, and his “language” meaningless gibbering; tellingly, each witness reported the murderer to be speaking in a language she herself did not understand. Dupin then proceeds to track down the ape and its owner without ever venturing from his apartment, using only the newspaper.

Dupin appears in just three stories by Poe, but his influence on the generations of detectives that followed was immense. Nowhere is it more pronounced than in the most famous detective of all, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In addition to the character of his detective, even the structure Doyle chose is the same, an everyman narrator describing the adventures of this impossibly brilliant fellow in terms to which you and I can relate. There’s a telling “lady doth protest too much” moment in the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), where Doyle acknowledges the elephant in the room. Dupin, Holmes tells Watson when the latter points out how similar Holmes’s methods are to those of Doyle’s inspiration, is “a very inferior fellow” compared to him, although his reasons for saying so aren’t exactly rigorously worked out.

At this point I need to pause for a moment to describe what makes the nineteenth-century detective different from those who would follow. In her 1985 PhD thesis on Adventure (one of if not the first to be written about a videogame), Mary Ann Buckles makes an important distinction between “game as literature” and “literature as game”:

The object of the work is the determining factor: if the main goal is for the reader to decipher some veiled meaning or to figure out the answer to a question or puzzle posed by the work, its basic character is game-like. Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” mystery/detective literature, and some aspects of hermetic and Baroque poetry can, I believe, be viewed as games. On the other hand, if a puzzle posed in the work is also answered in the work so that the reader is not responsible for the solution, it is not a game. There might be clever, playful literary devices in them that can be considered as little games, but these are used to enhance the meaning or beauty. It is then the depiction or representation of some meaning or aesthetic experience that is the main object.

For all their gamesmanship, the stories of Dupin and Holmes fall into the category of “game as literature” for one reason: they don’t present to us, the readers, any truly solvable puzzles. The chain of logic that leads Dupin to his murdering orangutan is absurd. If we know who the killer is, it’s possible to follow his logic back from its conclusion, but any given link on the chain of logic is equally admitting of dozens of alternate possibilities. As a bemused Poe wrote in response to the praise heaped upon him for his Dupin stories, “Where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?”

Doyle is an even worse offender. Not only does Holmes always choose the correct of a myriad of possible explanations for even the most trivial of evidence, but Doyle often keeps his reader in the dark about crucial elements of the cases, letting Holmes solve the case with inside information, as it were. The typical Holmes story begins with someone visiting 221B Baker Street with a seemingly impossible case, proceeds through Watson bumbling around and Holmes being cryptic, and ends with Holmes explaining to everyone, not least the reader, how brilliant he was. The poor reader never has a chance; the games in the Sherlock Holmes stories are all internal to the stories, to be played and solved by Holmes alone while we look on admiringly. Dupin and Holmes are not so much examples of the Power of Logic in the real world as they are of naive faith in logic as a semi-mystical force, more superheroes (“Logic Man!”) than practical examples. One of Holmes’s classic tricks is to give a rundown of a stranger’s character and life circumstances in minute detail, all from observing their appearance and behavior for a scant moment or two. There are a few occasions in the stories where he invites Watson to have a go at the same thing. Watson, not being graced with Holmes’s superhuman Powers of Logic, makes a series of very reasonable inferences and deductions — and, of course, gets everything spectacularly wrong. Suffice to say that we — and anyone living in the real world — would be more like Watson than Holmes.

But what if the puzzles imbedded in these stories were fairer, actually solvable by the reader, so that the reader could play detective right along with the protagonist of the story? It’s not an untenable notion by any means. In 491 BCE Sophocles told in Oedipus the King how Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx to win the hand of Queen Jocasta. Let’s not dwell on what an ugly match that turned out to be, but instead note that the reader/playgoer has a chance to ponder and solve the riddle right along with Oedipus — or not. It’s game as literature and literature as game intertwined, to be taken as the reader/playgoer chooses. Another famous example is of course the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit, which Bilbo ironically wins by ignoring the proper rules of riddling and simply asking, “What have I got in my pockets?” Sometimes the only way to win is to cheat a bit…

In the early twentieth century, some authors started to write tighter, fairer mysteries, where all clues at the disposal of the detective were also available to the reader, and where the killer could be reasonably deduced by following the trail of evidence, however tangled. Eventually, in 1929, one R.A. Knox codified ten rules of good practice that made a fair, solvable detective story. Like Graham Nelson’s later Player’s Bill of Rights, they’re a sometimes hilarious mixture of the general and commonsensical (“All supernatural and preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course”) and the author’s specific pet peeves (“No Chinaman must figure in the story,” a reaction to the absurdities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels).

While I’m not sure I want to push this point too far, there is a certain parallel between the development of the text adventure and that of the modern detective novel, of unfair early works prompting reactions like those of Nelson and Knox, who began to codify better design policy — at least if we are interested in reading detective novels primarily for their game-like aspects. (Certainly the Dupin and Sherlock Holmes stories have other appeals that have made them more enduring than most of the later, fairer works.) The cruel irony in the case of the text adventure is that such rigorous public discussion of design policy did not take place until the form was already commercially dead, arguably partly slain by the very design sins Nelson belatedly railed against.

The 1920s and 1930s are often called the golden age of detective fiction, when the genre reached a far larger readership than it has before or since. The queen of the era was of course Agatha Christie, the bestselling novelist of all time. She wasn’t always completely fair — she wasn’t above withholding the occasional key bit of evidence known by her detective from her reader, and on two occasions even made the murderer the narrator himself — but she generally gave the reader at least the ghost of a chance of figuring it out for herself. Christie was not interested in plumbing the depths of her character’s souls, but rather moved them around in her books like chess pieces, components of the puzzle that was her real concern. Indeed, there’s a feeling of unreality about classic whodunits that is unusually pronounced even for genre literature. Murder, about the ugliest business there is, becomes just a target for intellectual curiosity. The golden-age whodunit is all about the puzzle.

Given that, a logical next step might be to remove the trappings of the novel entirely, to just throw all of the evidence into the reader’s lap and challenge her to solve the crime herself. We’ll talk about the first person to make that leap next time.


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