(Editor’s note: Most modern readers have forgotten or never even heard of 20th-century British hard-boiled fictionist Peter Cheyney, but he was once a huge best-seller in Europe, his many crime novels, in a variety of series, issued and reissued in multiple editions. In the essay below, Michael Keyton—a resident of Monmouth, Wales, who’s penned several works of horror and speculative fiction, as well as the horror/comedy/noir yarn Clay Cross—offers background to his latest book, a biography titled Cheyney Behave!: Peter Cheyney: A Darker World, plus some period context for Cheyney’s storytelling. Much of the piece is devoted to the Dark Series, which featured players such as Michael Kane, Johnny Vallon, Shaun O’Mara, and of course, Peter Everard Quayle, the operations director for a UK intelligence unit combating Nazi agents.)
I first came across author Peter Cheyney when I was
somewhere between 12 and 13 years old. At a church bazaar or second-hand bookshop—the memory is blurred. I forgot all about him for almost 40 more years. And this “forgetting” is key to the whole story. Peter Cheyney (1896-1951) was the most popular and prolific British author of his day. He was also the most highly paid. His curse, perhaps, is that he undoubtedly influenced Ian Fleming, for James Bond
is nothing more than a glamorous composite of the Cheyney “hero.” Cheyney created the template that Fleming developed, and the rest is history. Bond got Chubby Broccoli and celluloid fame, Peter Cheyney obscurity and critical
John le Carré, when asked about spy books that might have influenced him as a child, bowed dutifully to the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, and Graham Greene. But then he mentioned the “awful, mercifully forgotten chauvinistic writers like Peter Cheyney and Co.” Professor John Sutherland made a similar point when he referred to Cheyney’s eight-book Dark
Series (Dark Duet, Dark Bahama, etc.) as the “high point of a resolutely low-flying career.” These two wonderfully pithy assessments are true to a point. They are also skewed by the cultural backgrounds and literary talents of both men.
So why write a book about Cheyney, other than for the fact that the only previous biography devoted to his life and work (Peter Cheyney: Prince of Hokum, by Michael Harrison) was penned by a fairly uncritical friend of his back in 1954? The reason is the same one that draws me to the works of Edgar Wallace and Sapper (aka H.C. McNeile), Mickey Spillane and Richard S. Prather. They may not be great literature, even though they offer some wonderful vignettes, but they open windows into cultures and mores now largely unknown. Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer, for instance, illustrate wonderfully the underlying unease and hysteria shared by great swaths of the population after the Great War; they offer insights into the fantasies and prejudices of ordinary readers. Peter Cheyney, coming on the scene a little later, does the same, his greatest achievement catching the zeitgeist of the Second World War in his justly acclaimed Dark Series.
Out of the Dark Series (left to right): Dark Interlude (Pan, 1950) and Dark Duet (Pan, 1960)—both of which boast cover art by Sam Peffer, aka “Peff”—and The Dark Street (Pan, 1963), with an illustration by J. Oval (alias Ben Ostrick).
The Dark Series—debuting in 1942 and following his introduction of two other crime series, one starring hard-nosed FBI agent Lemmy Caution, the other featuring British private investigator Slim Callaghan—was immensely popular because it tapped into what people wanted to believe. There is little subtlety in those spy tales. Women are lovingly described for men far from home; and in his lavish and detailed accounts of what his female characters are wearing, Cheyney appealed to women suffering from rationing and austerity in Europe. To both, he offered wish fulfillment when wishes were all that was un-rationed. He also offered hope.
During the dark years of World War II, Cheyney’s novels were carried into combat zones and exchanged for 10 cigarettes apiece in POW camps; and during an era when fabric was rationed, women fantasized about the glamorous
Cheyney femmes fatales in their satin and silks, sheer stockings, ruffles and bows. Read Cheyney and you’re reading violence and brutality set in a fashion catalogue.
The Dark Series tapped into a zeitgeist, when hope and belief trumped sophistication. Britain was fighting a war, its very existence at stake. This central fact perhaps best explains why so many Peter Cheyney books were found in the battlefields of Europe. The books were propaganda gold, offering what every Briton wanted to believe.
They also held a mirror up to a truth the authorities of the time denied—a startling loosening of sexual mores.
Half a dozen years of total warfare brought unimaginable violence to “ordinary people,” and when faced with disruption and imminent death, moral restraint appears quaint rather than admirable. War coarsened people
in their need for immediacy and the pleasures of now. The English poet Philip Larkin once famously said, “Sex was invented in 1963 … between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban … And the Beatles’ first LP.” A snappy sound bite, but essentially false.
The truth was far different. Sexual permissiveness was kick-started by the Second World War and was not the sole preserve of the young. In his 1985 book, Virtue Under Fire: How World War II Changed Our Social and Sexual Attitudes, Scottish-born historian John
Costello took as his central premise that the drama and excitement of international battle had eroded moral restraints, the totality of war bringing the urgent licentiousness of the front lines closer to home. In the words of one American soldier: “We were young and could die tomorrow.”
(Left) Peter Cheyney, from the back of the 1950 Collins edition of Dark Bahama.
Costello’s analysis, which many thought an eye-opener in the mid-1980s, was actually predated by Peter Cheyney and brought to life in his Dark Series four decades earlier. What makes Cheyney so significant, and explains his popularity, is that his books reflected what officialdom wouldn’t concede about societal change, and
reflected it without judgment.
Putting together Cheyney, Behave! involved addictive research, contacting his old school and various
golf clubs, and searching through old maps. It required my scouring second-hand bookshops (directly or through the Amazon online sales site), exploiting the generosity of Adrian Sensicle—the man responsible for the Official Peter Cheyney Website—and amassing a treasure trove of magical pulp fiction.
The process has also been a learning experience—from contacting the Cheyney estate for permission to quote from the author’s work, to finding someone who could simplify maps that allow the reader to follow in the footsteps of Cheyney’s various heroes. The Cheyney estate sold me a license to quote up to 1,300 words. Plenty, I thought … until I began systematically counting and realized I had used far more. Cheyney’s prose is addictive. The subsequent editing has, I think, made for a notably tighter book.
Perhaps the greatest learning experience of all has been in marketing. Some readers might buy my book out of simple curiosity, but I am really in search of Peter Cheyney enthusiasts—a narrow fan base, but one that’s scattered
worldwide. I hope that, having been given the chance to write this article for The Rap Sheet, I can spread word of the book’s existence a bit farther than might otherwise be possible.
In Cheyney, Behave you will find misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism, and chauvinism, but at its
core is idealism and profound vulnerability. Peter Cheyney’s success as the highest-paid writer of his time does not necessarily qualify him as a literary giant, but it does show that his fiction reflected the attitudes and moods of a huge portion of the population, amplified them, and played them back to readers. Cheyney talked to the Everyman rather than the educated elite, and it was the Everyman who bought his books in droves. His fiction reveals the nuances of a world long past, one very different from our own, but still fascinating and worth understanding.
READ MORE: “Peter Cheyney, Part I: The Lemmy Caution Novels,” by Steve Holland (Bear Alley).