Peter Cheyney and I

(originally published May, 2016 by Mystery File)

I came across Peter Cheyney when I was somewhere between twelve and thirteen. A church bazaar or second hand bookshop, the memory is blurred. What remains clear is that being basically stupid and already with the propensity to read what I wanted to read, I assumed at first the book was a western ‘Peter Cheyenne’ being some kind of cowboy. When it became clear that it wasn’t a western, I put the book down convinced Peter Cheyenne was an American thriller writer.

I forgot all about him (well almost, the name having some kind of magic) for almost forty years. And this ‘forgetting’ is key to the whole story. Peter Cheyney 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 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 censure.

John le Carre, when asked about spy books that might have influenced him as a child, gave the following response. He duly bowed his head to Kipling, Conrad, Buchan and Greene, and then referred to the: ‘…awful, mercifully-forgotten chauvinistic writers like Peter Cheyney and Co.’

John Sutherland made a similar point, referring to Cheyney’s Dark Series 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 background and literary talent of both men.

Cheyney was chauvinistic, and no great shakes in terms of vocabulary and style, but he shouldn’t be forgotten ‘mercifully’ or otherwise. Cheyney’s success as the most highly paid writer of his time does not necessarily qualify him as a literary giant, but it does show that his work reflected the attitudes and mood of a huge swathe of the population, amplified it and played it back to them. Cheyney talked to the popular mood rather than the concerns of an educated elite. It was ‘everyman’ who bought his work in droves.

During the dark years of World War II and the austerity that followed, Cheyney’s novels were taken into battlefields, were exchanged for ten cigarettes in POW camps, and at a time when fabric was rationed, women fantasised about the glamorous Cheyney femme 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.

For those jaded by pilgrimages to Baker Street, Cheyney provides a welcome alternative. Most of his many heroes, villains and victims live in a very small area of London. Some are unwitting neighbours, and all jostle each other on the same roads and streets, ghosts in parallel worlds. These are mapped, allowing the reader to go on his or her own ‘Cheyney walk.’

Cheyney, Behave recaptures a lost world and provides an eye-opening analysis of a popular culture we might prefer to forget. The book examines the importance of cigarettes and alcohol in Cheyney’s world, his attitude to ‘pansies’, racism, women, and the unconscious but jaw-dropping sexism of his age. It analyses the significance of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series in terms of war propaganda and how Cheyney accurately captured the effects of war on prevailing morality.

In his books you will find misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism and chauvinism and, at their core, idealism and a deep vulnerability. In terms of market forces they reflect a world long past, one far different from ours but fascinating and worth understanding. Read Cheyney, Behaveand judge for yourself.

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Two Ghost Stories

By Michael Keyton

 

There was, and maybe still is, a great tradition in our family of naming a son after the father. This in effect has turned us into a franchise of ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’ with: ‘Big John’ and ‘Little John’, ‘Big Frank and Little Frank’, ‘Big Mike and Little Mike’, ‘Big Dave and Little Dave’, ‘Big Owen’, and ‘Little Owen’ — and ‘Very Little Owen’

Very Little Owen (we didn’t really call him that) was my Uncle Owen, and his wife Pat lived close to us. I have very clear memories of my Aunty Pat, and I think something needs to be said: very young children recognise a beautiful woman well before all the nonsense of puberty kicks in. My Aunty Pat was beautiful and she died very young leaving two small children. My uncle was distraught, understandably drank a little more than he should, and sometime later took up with another woman who treated the children poorly.

One day she was found at the bottom of the stairs, scared out of her wits and claiming that she’d been pushed. Her account was quite graphic. She’d been walking up the stairway when a woman materialised out of thin air and pushed her down. The first time I heard this story I was about eight, sitting under our kitchen table attempting to turn the Liverpool Echo into a Magic Carpet with scissors and some complex origami. I remember closing my eyes, trying to visualise the scene. I wanted to pop out from under the table with a whole series of questions, but wisely stayed put. The general consensus was that it must have been Aunty Pat, coming back to protect her two children, and I remember waving my scissors in glee.

Now this, I confess is a second-hand story, though in a family Celtic through and through accepted as more probable than possible.

My second ghost story is a personal experience – and you can take it or leave it.

I was a student at the time, lodging in 17 High fields Road, Langland, Swansea. It was an interesting place, run by an ex officer in the RAF and his wife with the help of a small hunch-backed lady. Husband and Wife resented the fact that they had to take in students, and their servant was forever trying to explain away their distaste for us.

One night I woke up in pitch darkness, and there was a woman, standing at the foot of my bed. There was no colour to her apart from a generalised whitish glow. I remember easing myself on to my pillow in quiet excitement. There was no fear, just this intense excitement that something inexplicable had just occurred— was occurring —she was still there. The thought crossed my mind that it had to be a dream, so I scratched and pinched myself. Then came the fear that despite all this, in the cold light of day, I might well try and convince myself it was after all a dream. I pulled some hair— kept on staring— and slowly she disappeared. (And no, I hadn’t been drinking that night)

The interesting thing is that she came back a few months later. This time I was at home in Liverpool, and I woke up in the middle of the night to see her standing over me at the side of the bed. Again, no fear— a sense of peace— AND, possibly more significantly, instant recognition. It was the same lady. Don’t ask me how I know. Again I went through the pinching of the flesh routine; she faded a little more quickly than previously, but was there long enough for me to be sure I was awake.

I know all the quasi-scientific explanations that can explain most things away, and there are others who’d claim it was my Guardian Angel. People believe what they will whether ‘New Age’ or ‘Materialist’. My only regret is that I haven’t seen her since.

PS: For those who enjoy ‘real life’ ghost stories, ‘Bus Stop’ in Tales from the Murenger is based upon one such, though suitably embroidered. It was told to me by the brother of the bus conductor involved when I was a student working in a biscuit factory.

And, in case you missed it, don’t forget to check out ECHOES AND BONES, an anthology of dark fiction written by myself and the other Dolls. If you’re an American, you can enter to win a copy on Amazon. Live in another country? Keep an eye on our Facebook page for a chance to win.

 

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Weird Writerly Things

Every writer has a process. Even if it’s only that they write in a specific room or at a certain time of day, we all have something that helps get us in the mood. I (Renee) forced everyone to tell me one weird thing they do to get in the zone for writing. Some of the Dolls didn’t disappoint. Liam, you need to get weirder. Just saying.

Anyway, here’s what they told me. Now they know the confidentiality thing I made them sign is useless.

Liam: Just daydream and type what happens.

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Hanna: Being in nature. I usually write best outside too.

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Oh yeah, sounds great, Hanna.

Steve: Smoking cigarettes and staring at the sky was a great way to zone out and run a chapter through my head. Unfortunately it’s not a good habit, lung-wise, so I can’t recommend it in good faith.

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(right?)

Michael: Cleaning the toilets usually does it, followed by strong coffee. Either that or a tomato sandwich.

(Did you say tomato sandwich?)

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Renee: Candy Crush. I wish I was joking, but I’m not. Playing a few rounds of that empties my brain of other things. I just play until I’m ready and then I write. If that doesn’t work, I take a nap, because naps are awesome.

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Katrina: Coffee and a swift kicking of everyone the hell away from me.

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(We had such high hopes for yours, Kat.)

Christian: I don’t have a weird thing that helps me get in the zone. Is that weird?

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(Yes, Christian. It’s weird. You’re weird.)