The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Intelligence and Information in the Espionage Fiction of Dennis Wheatley

Rebecah Pulsifer
Kettering University

Slaney Chadwick Ross
Fordham University

This article examines the spy novels of Dennis Wheatley as exemplars of the desire of espionage fiction to grapple with changing understandings of the role of the individual in the field of intelligence services. Wheatley's crackerjack spy, Gregory Sallust, is adept at both mastering and synthesizing information, and this skill set puts him at odds with prevailing mid-century trends in information theory, which tended to view human intelligence as incapable of effectively analyzing the large amounts of data that technological advances made available for the first time. Wheatley's Sallust, a prototype of James Bond who blends analytical brilliance with intense personality, is a striking example of the ways in which espionage fiction between the wars negotiated a desire to privilege human experience against new understandings of both human intelligence and intelligence gathering.

Keywords:  Dennis Wheatley / espionage / spies / intelligence / information

In James Bond’s first encounter with Dr. No, his adversary proposes that they “‘tell each other our secrets’” (Fleming 175). “‘First, to show you that I hide nothing, I will tell you mine,’” No suggests. “‘Then you will tell me yours’” (175). This openness to disclosure is uncharacteristic; No prefers disguise, “‘stage effects,’” and “‘conjuring tricks’” (176). But in his conversation with Bond, he admits, “‘It is a rare pleasure to have an intelligent listener, and I shall enjoy telling you the story of one of the most remarkable men in the world. You are the first person to hear it. I have not told it before’” (177). In what follows, No reveals his worldview, personal history, and destructive plans to Bond, who listens but never unveils his own character or mission. Bond is privy to No’s secrets, this exchange reveals, because he is an “intelligent listener.” Like fictional and fleshly spies before and since, Bond uncovers secret information with his wit. However, he accesses secrets not with his intelligence—No has already seen through Bond’s cover story—but because he is intelligent. It is intelligence, not information alone, that makes a spy a spy. Bond, in other words, is specially suited to the work of espionage. In Bond, No finds an interlocutor who both uncovers information and is worthy of it. Bond is an organic data source for the state, an embodiment of human intelligence who triumphs over enemies who are part-machine or otherwise human perversions of his own patriotic identity.

That Bond is an efficient information-gatherer and a tool in an information industry points to the entanglement of intelligence (a cognitive quality) and information (data to be obtained and exchanged) in the mid-twentieth century. In the years surrounding the Second World War, the nature and meaning of information were rapidly reappraised in a number of cultural domains. For developers of wartime communications technologies, information meant the difference between life and death. For geneticists, the human body began to resemble an “information processor” and DNA “the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level—an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being” (Gleick 8). For secret service organizations in the UK, US, and elsewhere, information clarified the relationship between the domestic and the foreign, familiarity and danger, success and failure.1 Together, these events signal a paradigm shift in the interwar years from a focus on the intelligence of the human in fields such as psychology and eugenics to a focus on intelligence qua information in fields including biology, cybernetics, and espionage.

This paradigm shift raises philosophical questions about the relationship of the human mind to the world. As information proliferates, its sheer volume threatens to exceed the resources of human intelligence; in other words, information threatens to defy human comprehension. American electrical engineer and AT&T employee Claude Shannon was one of the first to recognize this phenomenon (Hayles 59). In 1948, Shannon wrote a paper proposing that information and disorder (i.e., entropy), previously posited as opposites, were in fact one and the same. In other words, whereas earlier theories argued that greater information leads to greater order, Shannon “anticipated the contemporary insight that proliferating information is associated with the production of entropy…. What we fear most immediately is not that the universe will run down, but that information will pile up until it overwhelms our ability to understand it” (Hayles 49). For Shannon, as for agents in Britain’s expanding secret service industry, the dawning of the information age signaled not a more precise way of knowing, but the chaotic explosion of data that threatened to exceed, rather than to improve, human understandings of the world.

In our contemporary moment, we readily accept that information systems exceed our everyday understanding in the form of algorithms, supercomputing, and big data. In the interwar years, the potential of information to overwhelm rather than to enhance human intelligence—to confuse inquiring minds rather than to clarify the nature of the world to them—began to be recognized. Human intelligence, in other words, seemed feebler in a world increasingly driven by systems of information too vast and complex to be parsed by the individual human mind. This essay proposes that interwar espionage fiction pointed to this tension between intelligence and information by plotting how the exceptional minds of spies navigate fictional worlds saturated with codes, ciphers, and signals. In interwar espionage fiction, intelligence is valuable to the extent that it can synthesize and master information.

Broadly speaking, intelligence-gathering networks have always dealt with two forms of data: signals intelligence and human intelligence. Signals intelligence concerns intercepted communications, from letters to emails to data on a hard drive, and may require code-breaking and translation. Human intelligence, on the other hand, is the practice of firsthand observation. By showcasing the practices of signals intelligence and human intelligence, espionage fiction provides a staging ground for imagining the affordances and limitations of each form of data. How agencies go about analyzing this data has shifted a great deal over time. Prior to the late nineteenth century, human intelligence was the most important resource for intelligence services. For example, in the early days of organized spying, spy networks were usually dependent on the subjective analysis of one individual to determine the value of information. Renaissance spy networks relied heavily on a combination of signals intelligence (especially intercepting and decrypting letters) and the human intelligence provided by diplomats (Szechi 14–15). Early modern spy narratives show that individual spies attempt to heroically self-fashion as a way of justifying involvement in espionage and, more often, as a way of getting payment and recognition for services rendered (Marshall 16). The value of human intelligence was connected to the speed of technology: “Early modern Europe,” Daniel Szechi points out, “moved at the speed of a walking horse, which meant that much of the intelligence statesmen and princes received was long out of date by the time they received it” (19). Developments in weapons technology and the speed of travel, particularly after the Franco-Prussian War, led to the bureaucratization of intelligence services in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These newly formed agencies were faced with a massive influx of data, especially during the interwar period and World War II, as well as advances in cryptography and cryptographic devices, which could not have been analyzed in their entirety. For modern intelligence gatherers, signals intelligence is the more prominent tactic. Human intelligence had to give way to signal intelligence.2

Interwar spy novels, however, push back against this narrative by privileging human intelligence and individual genius over the bloodless work of sifting through mountains of data and analysis. In other words, interwar spy novels continued to value the increasingly obsolete idea of the heroic individual. This is not to say that the modern spy rejects technology, but rather that he is constantly in rebellion against bureaucratic forces working with technology to render human intelligence obsolete.3 The ideological work of the spy novel conceals human failures and advocates for the mastery of human intelligence.

We argue that interwar spy novels, with their dual interest in intelligent spies and intelligence gathering, plot contests between human intelligence and networks of information in which human intelligence ultimately prevails. Furthermore, in these novels, human intelligence prevails through its capacity to decipher data. Although the mind of the spy faces enormous challenges as it sifts through information, it inevitably succeeds in comprehending what it encounters. Interwar spy novels champion human intelligence, exemplified by the mind of the exceptional spy, which locates, decodes, and masters information relevant to the state. Reifying the exceptional human mind and glorifying in its triumphs over enemies who tend to be mechanized cyborgs, mad scientists, or uncontainable and ungovernable mobs, these novels present narratives that belie the reality of actual intelligence services, which are highly susceptible to human error and often flooded with too much information for the human mind to effectively analyze.

To test our hypothesis, we examine the relationship between intelligence and information in the narratives of one of Bond’s predecessors, Gregory Sallust. Emerging in the interwar and wartime years, Sallust, the creation of popular thriller author Dennis Wheatley, is often compared to Bond.4 Like Bond, Sallust is driven by desires, physical and material, and highly aware of his own exceptionalism. And, like Bond, Sallust’s intelligence is reflected in his capacity to categorize, interpret, and manipulate information for his own purposes. In these narratives, Sallust’s intelligence is vulnerable but ultimately triumphant. We suggest that this series investigates the potential vulnerability and fragility of human intelligence, yet finally affirms the powers of the human mind. The Sallust series, therefore, points to an interwar moment in and around World War II in which spy fiction worked to upholds the value of human intelligence.

Sallust’s author, Dennis Wheatley, was a prolific author of mysteries and “black magic” novels as well as espionage fiction from roughly 1930 to 1970.5 Although Sallust’s exceptional intelligence persists in postwar novels, the interwar and wartime Sallust novels are particularly attentive to the significance of his brilliance. For example, in Contraband (1936), the first espionage novel in the Sallust series, Wheatley characterizes his swaggering spy through his cleverness and capacity to finesse information:

From his public school he had gone straight into the war but a nasty head wound had put an end to his trench service and he had been seconded to Intelligence. His superiors there thought him a cynical but brainy devil and came to value him as a reliable man who would stick at nothing to collect vital information. (10)

Over the course of ten novels, the last two of which appear in the 1960s and incorporate elements of Wheatley’s fascination with the occult, Sallust uses these traits expertly. He acquires state secrets through improbable means, all while seducing women and enjoying luxury with the characteristic relish of his descendant James Bond. Wheatley paints Sallust as a heroic genius whose intelligence is distinctly embedded in his upper-class English education and sense of himself as a stalwart of the British Empire. He is all the more heroic because he is a master of information, even in its myriad and hidden interwar and wartime forms.

This essay proceeds in two parts. We first contextualize interwar notions of human intelligence, state intelligence, and information for the purpose of highlighting how these concepts become entwined in the histories and fictions of espionage between the wars. We then turn to our readings of the Sallust series, with particular attention to three novels published in 1940 and set in the Second World War: The Scarlet Imposter, Faked Passports, and The Black Baroness. These novels are animated by Sallust’s difficult but victorious battles with information, showing how his keen mind—along with his confidence, charisma, and quintessentially British sensibilities—is imperative for obtaining and understanding secrets valuable to the state. As a whole, this essay claims that interwar spy novels weigh in on a core concern of the midcentury, the fragility of human intelligence in comparison to the complexity of information, by plotting victories of the human mind in a world overrun by potentially bewildering data.
Interwar Intelligence

Quantifying and amassing intelligence are primarily preoccupations of the twentieth century. British psychologist Charles Spearman published his theory of general intelligence in 1904; it was the first to propose that human intelligence is a single cognitive quality undergirding all other mental processes. French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon authored the first intelligence quotient (IQ) test in 1905. Eugenicists in the United Kingdom and the United States circulated these premises in their calls for the extermination of the “mentally deficient” and for the proliferation of the “mentally strong.” Britain’s Secret Service Bureau, the precursor to MI5 and MI6, was formed in 1909 by the Admiralty and the War Office with the goal of controlling secret intelligence operations at home and overseas.6 These events kicked off decades of intelligence research in areas ranging from the human mind to the “foreign” world, and at the end of World War II, a new field of intelligence research, artificial intelligence, emerged as a formalized area of inquiry. In 1950, British polymath Alan Turing argued that, in time, not only will all human intelligence be mimicked by machines, but “machines will eventually compete with men in all purely intellectual fields” (434). Together, these events point to a cultural trajectory in which questions about the nature, meaning, and purpose of intelligence became central to multiple areas of inquiry.

At the same time, the related concept of genius was undergoing radical reappraisal in science and literature. Genius, which etymologically is linked to the supernatural through its reference to ancient pagan beliefs about the influence of “tutelary god[s] or attendant spirit[s]” in certain human minds (OED), had long been associated with madness in both literary and scientific discourse. In Hereditary Genius (1869), Francis Galton—cousin to Charles Darwin, father of eugenics, and arguably the first intelligence theorist—distinguished the genius of “inspiration” from the genius of “natural ability,” which he also calls mental “superior[ity]” (x).7 Galton places high value on the genius of “natural ability,” laying the groundwork for many nineteenth- and twentieth-century eugenic claims, including those about the innate nature of intelligence, the reciprocity of mental capacity and morality, the superiority of the European “race,” and the possibility of engineering a more perfect human species through the cultivation and manipulation of genetic stock. It would be difficult to overestimate the effect of Galton’s claims about genius on scientific approaches to human intelligence. He is recognized today as the founder of behavioral genetics and coined the phrase “nature versus nurture.” Generations of twentieth-century psychologists, including Charles Spearman, Cyril Burt, Lewis Terman, and Arthur Jensen, drew from Galton’s claims about the heredity of intelligence to institute some of the most longstanding (and controversial) practices of modern psychology: twin studies, factor analysis, and mental testing.8 Even as longstanding associations between madness and genius persisted, Galton’s conception of genius as superior, desirable, and heroic provided an alternate account that undergirds many twentieth-century understandings of superior intelligence as an inherently desirable trait.

Readers of turn-of-the-century middlebrow fiction could have observed a similar awe of genius in the some of the most popular stories published before or since: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective fiction featuring Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s stories are as much an exploration of Holmes’s mind, peculiar for its powers of perception, deduction, and rationality, as they are of the crimes he solves. Holmes epitomizes heroic intelligence, signaling the enchantment with unusual minds that characterizes much of the literature and popular fiction of the early and mid-twentieth century.9 The centrality of Holmes’s intelligence in Doyle’s stories shows that the status of human intelligence was a concern that energized middlebrow fiction more broadly.

Indeed, the histories of detectives and spies are intertwined.10 In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was preceded by a private detective agency, the Pinkerton Agency, founded in 1850, which had provided spy and bodyguarding services for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Congress initially rejected Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte’s request to form the Federal Bureau of Investigation out of concern that the President was attempting to create a secret police force, which, as Timothy Weiner notes, was “well-founded. Presidents had used private detectives as political spies in the past” (11). Gustav Steinhauer, head of the German Admiralty naval intelligence service formed in 1901, had trained at the Pinkerton Agency (Andrew 6). In practical terms, as well, the Secret Service in the United States trained “the first federal detective force” to operate within its own borders, locating makers of counterfeit currency and embedding within insurrectionist organizations (such as the Ku Klux Klan) (Jeffreys-Jones 6).

The beginnings of modern intelligence gathering in England are similarly rooted in nineteenth-century private investigation. The Secret Service Bureau, formed in 1909 by the Committee of Imperial Defence, in response to concern that German secret agents were infiltrating England, was headed by Edward “Tricky” Drew, a former private detective (Andrew 1). MI5 also had roots in the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, formed in 1883 as a response to Irish Republican terrorism in London (Andrew 6).11 To be a detective, moreover, is a profession that can be announced—Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer called William J. Flynn “America’s finest detective” when he appointed him head of the FBI in 1919 (Weiner 21)—whereas to pronounce oneself a spy amounts to pronouncing oneself retired. It is useful, therefore, to think of the detective and the spy as various points on a continuum of covert intelligence-gathering practices rather than as entirely distinct entities.

Although Doyle’s stories as well as interwar detective fiction more broadly are fascinated with the concept of genius, we contend that espionage fiction became a particularly important site for inquiries into the status of human intelligence in the interwar years because the spy, unlike the detective, fights hard for the mastery of data he ultimately achieves. Like their histories, the genres of detective and spy fiction can never be completely separated. Yet some distinctions can be made. In a discussion of the two genres, Allan Hepburn points out that while detective and spy fiction share similar plot trajectories, they typically emphasize different forms of reasoning. While the detectives apply their superior knowledge of the world by uncovering and piecing together concrete, preexisting information (deduction), spies infer matters of importance to international relations by interpreting ciphers, signals, and gestures (induction) (Hepburn, “Detectives” 210).12 In other words, in many cases, the detective lives in a stable, knowable world of information, of which he is indisputably the master, while the spy lives in a world of enigmas that he must demystify for the security of his nation. The spy, in other words, encounters ambiguous information, which threatens to exceed or elude him, and the stakes of which are international war or peace.

Furthermore, while both genres typically feature highly intelligent protagonists whose intelligence is often an enigmatic source of awe for their interlocutors, the genres are also distinguishable in their applications of this intelligence at different scales: the personal or the national. In Hepburn’s words, “The spy and the detective use personal intelligence for different ends: the spy, to unmask state enemies; the detective, to unmask murderers” (“Detectives” 212). In terms of literary fiction, the detective is crucial to nineteenth-century discourses surrounding the role of policing in the public sphere, while the twentieth-century spy takes these discourses underground, working covertly behind the scenes. The plots of many works of spy fiction can be understood as narrative processes of reaffirming and ultimately celebrating the tenuously capable powers of the human mind in an information-saturated world.

There is one further aspect of the genesis of the modern spy to be considered, in both fiction and history: the relationship between class and the ideology of espionage. The mid-twentieth century spy—and Gregory Sallust is no exception—followed the ideology of the nineteenth-century gentleman. David A. T. Stafford, who has traced the formulation of the spy figure from the work of Le Queux and E. Philip Oppenhem, describes him as such carrying the trappings of the landed classes: rather than requiring employment, he has duties and obligations to his land and to his country. According to Stafford, “The gentlemen secret agents of Edwardian fiction reaffirm their status by the rituals attaching to their class; the genteel atmosphere of their city rooms (their real homes, of course, being in the country), the comfort of pipe, fire, and whisky and soda….grandfather chair, and valet” (503). While midcentury agents like Sallust have shed their ancestral manors (but not, in Sallust’s case, their valets) and usually work for a living, they tend to combine vaguely aristocratic backgrounds with elite private education and, usually, military service. Stafford continues, “If there was an apparent contradiction between the activities of the international spy and the calling of an English gentleman…. then it was largely resolved through the attribution of all the negative connotations of espionage to the figure of the foreign spy” (491). Their behavior is designed to emphasize their Englishness, rather than their espionage, making activities that could be read as underhanded or even treasonous into feats of patriotism.

Intelligence services have a tendency to romanticize themselves, and fiction is part of this process. We are suggesting that the project of the midcentury spy narrative is to glorify and advocate for human intelligence over and against information. The narrative of the heroic individual performing colossal feats of intelligence against a formidable but ultimately fallible enemy is a comforting one, which elides both the mundanities of day-to-day intelligence gathering, and which avoids the real likelihood of the heroic individual’s failure, which becomes more apparent throughout the twentieth century. For interwar spies, the triumphant narrative of the super-intelligent hero spy also existed to counteract the bureaucratic inefficiencies, infighting, and lack of direction common among intelligence agencies as they deal with the perennial problems of how to gather information and what to do with it. At the same time, the story of human intelligence triumphing over machines, mad scientists, cyborgs, Nazi masterminds, or anarcho-communist hordes is undercut by the reality of modern intelligence gathering, which became heavily dependent on signals intelligence during World War II.

Interwar spy fiction particularly speaks to the biopolitical stakes of the relationship between intelligence and information. These stakes rose in the public imagination in the years leading up to the Second World War. The 1930s were a golden age for British secret service agencies. In 1931, MI5 “had been given a unique and powerful new mandate to pursue domestic subversion” (Smith x); also in the 1930s, the Secret Intelligence Service, later known as MI6, grew to include Section D (for “destruction”), the mandate of which was to “plan, prepare and when necessary carry out sabotage and other clandestine operations” (Jeffrey 320). These expansions were not without their difficulties. For example, Tim Milne of MI6 describes the pervasive tensions between the MI5 and MI6 due to an uneven distribution of resources between the two agencies (“Section V”). A contemporary account of the two agencies observes, “MI5 thought their foreign counterparts were a bunch of cowboys, while MI6 thought their domestic equivalents were glorified policemen” (Corera 3).

The practices and archives of the MI5 also reflect the agency’s resignation to the mysteries of large quantities of information. In the context of MI5, James Smith explains, the goal of the agency was not to “gather endless information for its own stake, but instead to manage risk: to watch, filter and categorize vast flows of information, in order to assess the extent to which any individual in Britain was involved with certain nodes (whether addresses, parties, publications, political events, companies, bank accounts or security-flagged individuals) that suggested he or she might be a potential subversive or spy” (13). MI5’s archives attest to the messiness of this process and the meanings and effects of human error in a world of big data.

At this moment, then, signals intelligence became the primary mode of intelligence gathering. At the same time, human intelligence was still a critical aspect of espionage—and one that was allowed to languish. If the 1930s was a golden age for British secret service agencies, it was also the moment when these agencies were infiltrated by the Cambridge spy ring: that the agencies were at their most porous at a time when their powers were at a new height, and most vulnerable to human treachery at a time when they most feared their ability to comprehend the mountains of new information at their command speaks to an essential tension at the heart of intelligence-gathering operations.13

In the section that follows, we investigate how three of Wheatley’s spy novels plot this interface of data and human minds. On the surface a flat character, obnoxiously cocksure and often obscene in his understandings of race, class, and gender, Gregory Sallust, in our reading, exemplifies how spy fiction stages contests between intelligence and information only to endorse the supremacy of human intelligence. The three novels we survey point to a moment of interwar anxiety, yet hopefulness, about the capacity of the human mind to demystify the world.
The “clever devil”

When Wheatley began writing the Gregory Sallust series in the mid-1930s, he was already a popular author of thrillers. Over the next four decades, he was to write “fifty novels, two volumes of short stories, and a few works of biography and popular history,” as well as an abundant, three-volume autobiography (Bentley 143). He first introduced Sallust in Black August (1934), a speculative novel set in 1960s London in which Sallust leads a band of survivors of a Communist coup through a post-apocalyptic English landscape, attempting at various points to highjack a battleship in order to turn pirate and to set up a utopian fiefdom of his own before order is restored by the English aristocracy. Two years later, in Contraband (1936), Sallust begins his career as an idiosyncratic state operative in interwar England. By 1940, he became part of the war effort. Three novels published in 1940, The Scarlet Imposter, Faked Passport, and The Black Baroness, chronicle his efforts to turn the war in the Allies’ favor. The first two of these wartime novels feature Sallust infiltrating Germany in a series of disguises with the hope of subversively overthrowing the Third Reich, or at the very least rescuing his love interest du jour. The Black Baroness stages Sallust’s adventures in Norway during the final days of the Second World War. During the interwar years, Sallust goes from fighting hordes of anarcho-communists in an imagined future to fighting a credible contemporary threat in Wheatley’s own time. In these three novels, the stakes of Sallust’s missions are raised and the biopolitical importance of his intelligence becomes more valuable.

Sallust is a middle-aged veteran of the First World War. A white scar, which “ran from his left eyebrow towards his dark, smooth hair, giving him a slightly Satanic appearance,” makes his body a sign of the Great War’s lasting effects (Contraband 2). Unlike Bond, he is not formally employed by Britain’s secret service; instead, he free-lances as a surrogate for the jovial aristocrat Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust.14 He loves gambling and rare spirits, and he views women as tantalizing, if distracting, sex objects. He is, in the vein of the Edwardian gentleman spy, deeply patriotic and suspicious of all strains of Communism. He, and Wheatley’s oeuvre as a whole, reflect a deeply conservative view of history, a delight in stereotyped English sensibilities, and little interest in problems of inequality at the levels of gender, class, or—especially prominent in the wartime spy novels, in which Sallust routinely downplays the circumstances of German Jews—ethnicity and religion. Sallust’s is a discerning mind, even as his tactics for uncovering information are occasionally haphazard. His adventures chronicle the triumph of human intelligence in a world swarming with cryptic, fleeting, and obscure forms of information.

The Sallust novels are organized around a consistent pattern: an exceptional mind’s quest for significant data. In each novel, Sallust seeks to retrieve information for Pellinore and, by extension, England. During the mission, he is thwarted, usually by an enemy who was previously unknown. By skillfully navigating his interpersonal encounters with these enemies, Sallust learns enough to sustain his investigation while never disclosing his true identity or mission. He frequently escapes through his skill at fabrication. Once safe from enemy detection, Sallust recounts his clever deceits, often while Pellinore showers him with congratulations and expensive ports. What is admirable about Sallust’s mind, the novels show, is its ability to gradually select and weave together the most convincing version of events for his interlocutors.15 In other words, in a world in which accessing information can mean the difference between life and death, Sallust’s style of intelligence is one that privileges sorting and collecting information, as opposed to luxuriating in private thought. Synthesizing and interpreting are framed as the essential attributes of human intelligence. Armed with these attributes, Sallust assesses the information he encounters, mastering its meaning and thereby advancing Britain’s national interests. 

This pattern plays out in The Scarlet Imposter, for instance, when Sallust’s first high-stakes mission to Germany disguised as a Nazi general comes to an end. When Sallust fails to adequately blend in, the Dutch capture him in a turn of events that threatens to end his mission. But Sallust manages to turn this failure into a success through escaping by means of a gradual manipulation of information about his life story. Knowing his Dutch captors will follow the clues he leaves for them about his paternity, Sallust fabricates an elaborate family history about his connections to London, which allows him to discreetly contact Pellinore and, consequently, acquire transfer papers to British custody. En route, he swaps places with his loyal friend from his years of military service, Rudd, whose class position is marked by an exaggerated dialect. Rudd cheerfully agrees to spend the remainder of the war in a Dutch concentration camp for British nationals. Back in England, Pellinore grudgingly admits that Sallust “‘used his intelligence there’” (174) to weave together an account of his past and escape confinement, but he withholds his highest praise until Sallust reveals that he also authored an elaborate plan to ensure Rudd’s early release from the camp (175–76). “‘Clever young devil, aren’t you?’,” Pellinore assents, attributing Sallust’s success in espionage to his shrewd manipulation of events (176). Sallust has failed in his larger mission, but he nevertheless has acquired valuable information: he delivers the first half of a name to Pellinore, “General Gra…,” which sets them on the road to continuing their mission (177).

The novel’s emphasis on Sallust’s failures shows that his is not the cool, collected mind of Bond, nor the school of Cambridge or Oxford don spymasters—such as John le Carré’s George Smiley—that frequently appear in postwar spy novels for “their ability to deduce information from encoded, sometimes foreign, languages” (Hepburn, Intrigue 57).16 In these earlier, interwar novels, Sallust faces a more basic battle: how to gather and manipulate valuable data about a complex world with only the resources of his intelligence. Sallust’s cleverness triumphs in the end, but it is a tenuous form of cleverness that requires continual assessment and verification. The Sallust series challenges its protagonist’s intelligence only to reveal its resilience and superiority.

Pellinore is not alone in his assessment of Sallust’s intelligence. Each Sallust novel chronicles the awe that Sallust’s interlocutors frequently experience when they observe the workings of his mind. In Contraband, for example, Sallust earns the respect of institutionalized intelligence officers in Scotland Yard. After Sallust rescues a police inspector from a hostile encounter with two would-be hitmen, a Superintendent recognizes him as “a clever devil if there ever was one” (55). More astoundingly, in Faked Passports, a fictionalized Hermann Goering acknowledges Sallust is “‘a very clever fellow’” (134). After this comment, Goering goes on to disclose detailed German Secret Service information on the U.S.S.R. to Sallust because he admires his cleverness. The admiration proves to be mutual: Sallust sees in Goering “nothing cruel,” “nothing evil,” eyes “quick with understanding and intelligence” (133), and, for these reasons,  “an opponent worthy of his steel” (134). In this romanticized portrait of Goering, it is the sophistication of his powers of reasoning that earns Sallust’s respect, and their meeting is figured as one between two ideologically opposed but equally reasonable minds. These examples show how the nature of Sallust’s intelligence colors not only his characterization, but also his interactions with other characters, animating the novels’ plots by unlocking access to more information. What matters is not ideology, but intelligence, as Sallust’s assessment of Goering indicates; in other words, any character may be redeemed if he proves to be a master of information.

This valorization of intelligence at the expense of ethics undergirds the broader political commitments of Wheatley’s espionage fiction. Another aspect of the Sallust series that has its genesis in espionage fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period is its representation of Jewishness and communism. In the Sallust series, Jewishness and communism are virtually synonymous; while ideologically suspicious, communism (and, by extension, Jewishness) is figured as an ultimately intellectual movement in comparison to the coercive mass consciousness of Nazism. Noting the Jewish expulsion from the medical profession in The Scarlet Imposter, one of Sallust’s German informants aligns Jewishness and intellectualism by observing, “‘The Jews are not the only ones who have suffered among the intellectuals’” (89). He continues, “‘There is not an intellectual in Germany who would hesitate to acclaim with joy the arrest of Hitler and his satellites’” (89). In this example, the moral claim for preserving Jewish life emerges not from its association with, for example, the category of humanness, but rather from its proximity to intellectualism. These novels perform, in other words, a similar process of dehumanizing rationalization that undergirds the Nazi atrocities to which they vaguely allude. Rather than associating Jews with lower forms of life, the value of Jewish life as human emerges from its capacity to be intelligent. Jews, in other words, are still evaluated through a hierarchy of humanness. Phyllis Lassner observes that in World War II espionage fiction, “The Jew represents difficult, by which I mean painful and untranslatable, willfully and circumstantially disregarded and belated intelligence, knowledge, and understanding” (127). In the Sallust series, the difficulty of Jewishness is in understanding it as a category of humanness, unmodified by other qualities of value.

If the Sallust series evaluates human life according to its capacity for intellectual performances, it also figures the data that Sallust retrieves for England as plunder acquired through the processes of imperialism. Sallust uncovers the most valuable information he finds in foreign lands and then delivers it to his native England. The Black Baroness, for instance, registers this spatial circulation of information by noting that, on assignment in Norway, Sallust has “sent to Sir Pellinore all the information that he could secure” (41). This passage figures Norway as an information-rich territory ready to be mined of its resources by Sallust’s cleverness. Elsewhere, the value of information is affirmed when Sallust bargains for his freedom with what he describes to his captor as “‘very important information; something which may change the whole fate of Norway’” (82). Framing his information a precious commodity, Sallust orchestrates his release. These examples show how Sallust’s quests for information affirm the ideology of imperialism by suggesting that the English mind is deserving of the resources it encounters elsewhere in the world. In the hands of Pellinore, the information that Sallust obtains serves the purpose of advancing England’s national interests in the war, demonstrating the biopolitical stakes of information acquisition.

So far, we have suggested that Sallust’s intelligence is defined through his capacity to sort, sometimes with difficulty, the clues he observes about the world into categories of relevance or irrelevance. His mind, in other words, is one that maneuvers the difficult terrains of information with discernment. This quality allows him to locate and collect the information that is always the prize of the spy. The series often shows that Sallust recognizes valuable data even when it is disguised as noise. The Black Baroness, for instance, describes Sallust’s capacity for “reading the news which lies behind the headlines”; or, in other words, for reading the codes that are invisible to most (43). From Norway, Sallust reads a news report of Allied interest in blocking Nazi access to iron ore as evidence that the British Navy is “really laying minefields to protect lanes through which troopships, bearing the British Army, could come to take over the country” (43). Recognizing the political import of a seemingly throwaway report, Sallust leaves the Oslo airport confident in his ability to aid the approaching British landing-force with his “thorough knowledge of Oslo and its environs” (44). Sallust’s mind turns codes into information, which in turn clarify the motives of others. He is intelligent, in other words, because he is able to recognize and comprehend relevant data.

Like Bond in Dr. No, Sallust’s form of intelligence allows him to uncover information that might otherwise be inaccessible. This skill, as in turns out, plays just as well at home as abroad. For example, in The Scarlet Imposter, Sallust escapes censure for a particularly violent incident and learns the identity of the mysterious Madame DuBois in a conversation with Pellinore. Sallust realizes his careful arrangement of the information he has gathered has brought about “specially good luck,” as it has allowed him to extend and expand his espionage activities: “By so skillfully breaking his bad news,” Sallust realizes, “he had led Sir Pellinore to suggesting that he should go [to Paris to investigate Madame DuBois] instead of telling him, as he had feared, that has his activities had now resulted in the deaths of four people he was to take no further hand in the affair” (265). The benefit of intelligence, the Sallust series shows us, is that it extends action. Sallust’s genius does not mean that he is always successful, but his extreme self-confidence, which is both a facet of his heroic intelligence and of his essential bond with Britain, fuels his missions.

The existence of Sallusts and Bonds in espionage fiction is part of a larger series of narratives present in both British and US-American culture developed to cope with the darker reality of how powerful countries remain so. As Timothy Melley contends, stories about espionage are driven by a fascination with what he calls the “covert sphere,” which is “a cultural imaginary shaped by both institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state” (5). The key concept of secrecy is at once a social threat (Spacks 41), a generator of plot, and a means of creating—and protecting—a status quo. From an institutional perspective, fiction plays a vital role in mediating the covert sphere because it allows readers of spy narratives the chance to engage with secrets and reconcile themselves to the dark practices intelligence work entails. By appearing to make intelligence work intelligible, interwar espionage fiction suggests that ordinary readers can comprehend the workings of powerful systems of information. These novels, in other words, quell anxieties about the potential incomprehensibility of vast troves of information by suggesting such information is decipherable and controllable by human intelligence.

Wheatley’s Sallust bears much in common with Fleming’s Bond. Both succeed because of their capacity to string information about the world together, which allows them to identify important data, decipher codes, and narrate their experiences in a persuasive way. But Sallust’s mind is not the calm, encyclopedic mind of James Bond, who easily awes his interlocutors. Instead, Sallust’s struggles with information are serious and palpable. The series lays bare the ways in which the proliferation and amplification of information have the potential to threaten human comprehension. While Wheatley’s wartime espionage fiction is deeply rooted in its moment, we contend that it remains of interest for its investigations of the relationship of human intelligence to changes in interwar cultures of information. As a representation of British Intelligence and human intelligence, the Sallust series asks us to consider how Wheatley and other writers of middlebrow spy fiction champion human intelligence and to what ideological ends. In interwar spy fiction, in which information often appears as if it might be unintelligible, human intelligence triumphs.


See, for instance, Michael Warner’s discussion of postwar intelligence cultures. He observes that the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) emerged from US senior policymakers’ desire for “a more rational decision process and a clearer flow of information to support it” (142). The CIA used the signals intelligence system to serve both policymakers and combat commanders, linking information acquisition to national policy and military operations.

See Stephen Budiansky’s Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union (2016).

Some modern spies—Lee Child’s Jack Reacher for instance—do make a point of not knowing how cellular data works, and in a post-PRISM world, this is a help, not a hindrance. We can also look to spy parodies such as Sterling Archer, who extends Bond’s materialistic excesses and his intellectual prowess: Archer refuses to read security briefings but rarely loses a fight. See also the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall, in which M is interrogated by Parliament for her methods: “Today I have repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-oh section, isn’t it all rather quaint?” In order to showcase Bond’s enduring physical and intellectual prowess, Skyfall promotes the idea of “a golden age of espionage where human intelligence was the only resource available,” although this was far from reality.

4  See, for instance, Peter Sheridan, who claims: “[Dennis Wheatley’s] series of Gregory Sallust spy novels were an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond” (par.5).

5  See Christopher Bentley’s biographical note on Wheatley (143–44). Gregory Sallust first appears in Black August (1934), but this novel, set in 1960, falls more neatly into the genres of dystopian or speculative fiction rather than espionage.

6  For an overview of intelligence theory in psychology, see Ken Richardson’s The Making of Intelligence. Anne Kerr and Tom Shakespeare offer a history of eugenics and overview of its enduring effects, in Genetic Politics: From Eugenics to Genome. For a history of MI6, see Gordon Corera’s The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6.

7  Stephen Jay Gould discusses Galton’s work on genius and its effect on the history of psychology (107).

8  In his article entitled “Galton’s Legacy to Research on Intelligence” (2002), Arthur Jensen outlines Galton’s influence on contemporary intelligence theory.

9  Anna Neill argues, by contrast, that Holmes’s mind is intuitive rather than rational. In “The Adventures of the Retired Colourman” (1926), a newspaper reporter inadvertently attributes Holmes’s brilliance to MacKinnon, a detective, in the following terms: “The remarkable acumen by which Inspector MacKinnon deduced from the smell of paint that some other smell, that of gas, for example, might be concealed; the bold deduction that the strong-room might also be the death-chamber…should live in the history of the grime as a standing example of the intelligence of our professional detectives” (Case-book 133).

10  The modern heroic spy had to be imagined before he could come into being. While Holmes remains an important antecedent because of his virtuosic intelligence, a different breed of super-intelligent, quasi-mythical agent was peddled by Edwardian spy novelists in the years before WWI. We can find this prototype in the best-selling works of William le Queux, whose serialized spy novels had a huge influence both on public opinion and on the leaders of MI5 and MI6, who were eager to believe in a robust German espionage network operating within Britain despite significant evidence to the contrary. Le Queux’s fantasies of invasion created a feedback loop between imaginary worlds—worlds peppered with German double-agents masquerading as ordinary citizens or innocent immigrants, but protected by talented individuals modeled on le Queux himself—real-life intelligence services eager to justify their existence, and an increasingly paranoid public. These fictional accounts, combined with public pressure and a massive uptick in (unsubstantiated and likely fictionalized) civilian reports of suspicious encounters with Germans, led to the creation of modern British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 (Andrew 8–9, 17). The Pinkerton Agency has proven itself adaptable to the changing landscape of the security services industry and now operates as a consulting firm offering a variety of protections (“Corporate Investigation Services”).

11  MI5 and MI6 also had antecedents in two War Office departments, MO2 and MO3, organized to handle foreign intelligence and counter-espionage, respective (Andrew 5–7).

12  For instance, Agatha Christie’s World War II-era novel N or M? (1941), two detectives are recruited by intelligence services in order to ferret out a German operative embedded in an English seaside community (a common fantasy of Edwardian spy novelists). When the double-agent loses his temper, his English façade slips and he becomes “an infuriated Prussian” (224).

13  These were (at least) Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, and Anthony Blunt. They were, like many fictional secret agents, “gentlemen spies,” admitted to the British secret services as part of a tradition of service among English aristocrats which presumes a link between blue blood, patrician values, and aptitude for espionage.

14  Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust, with his proto-Arthurian name, truly fits the mold of Stafford’s “gentleman spy,” and is thus an appropriate mentor for Sallust, who is the next iteration of the gentleman spy. Pellinore is “one of those remarkable products which seem peculiar to England. Born in 1870, the heir to a pleasant property on the Welsh border which had been in his family since the War of the Roses…He had an eye for a horse and a pretty woman, and an infinite capacity for vintage port, but no one had ever accused him of having any brains” (x). Although Gwaine-Cust meets Stafford’s standards for the gentleman spy (“[a]lmost literally rooted in the land…rarely to be found in business or commerce, and his presence in the city was primarily to carry out his obligations as ruler and administrator”), Sallust, who lacks his pedigree, is the more intelligent (503).

15  Sallust is not the first spy to recognize an innate connection between storytelling and espionage. In his article “‘Memorialls for Mrs. Aphora’: Aphra Behn and the Restoration Intelligence World,” Alan Marshall has recently drawn attention to the distinct rhetorical patterns, grounded in the performance of deference, that spies far afield practiced upon their handlers during and after the English Civil Wars.

16  Le Carré’s George Smiley novels are cynical Cold War counterpoints to the hyperactive narratives of super-spies like Bond and Sallust. However, Smiley, the fat, plodding anti-hero whose desires and drives are buried under mountains of manners and the stiffest of upper lips, is like Bond and Sallust in his role as underdog against bureaucracy that increasingly has no more use for spies like him.
Works Cited

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Bentley, Christopher. “Fifty Million Copies: The Fiction of Dennis Wheatley.” In Twentieth-Century Suspense, edited by Clive Bloom, MacMillan, 1990, pp. 143–60. 

Budiansky, Stephen. Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

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Fleming, Ian. Dr. No. MJF Books, 1958.

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Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. Norton, 1981.

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Smith, James. British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930–1960. Cambridge University Press 2013.

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Wheatley, Dennis. Black August. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1934.

---. The Black Baroness. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942.

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