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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A Window Cleaner’s Curse

by Michael Keyton

mike's blog

I had a window cleaner once. A real window cleaner who carried his own ladder and bucket, and climbed said ladder at what ever the angle or height of the house. He also whistled so you could choose not to be in or draw the curtains hurriedly depending on circumstances. In every sense, this man was a paragon, and more – a bibliophile.

One summer’s day, as I was pruning roses, he accosted me like an ancient mariner in search of an albatross:

“Tell me your favourite book of all time.”

“I don’t have a favourite book of all time.”

“Well then, tell me one you’d recommend to me – one I would like to read.”

“It depends on what kind of books you enjoy.” I was floundering, and still holding the bucket of fresh water he’d initially requested. He ignored my outstretched arm, the water dripping strategically over his shoes.

“Complex fantasy with a Victorian feel,” he said.

This was no ordinary window cleaner – but my answer was swift. “Gormenghast,” I said, “by Mervyn Peake.” He made me spell it, but didn’t write

it down. He took the bucket from me and placed it on the floor.

“Now I’ll recommend a book to you.” His finger touched me on the chest with conviction and zeal. He could have been saving my soul.

I smiled, caught in a book-trap I hadn’t seen coming.

“You must read Barnaby Rudge.” His eyes burned into mine. “You must read Barnaby Rudge.”

“Dickens, eh,” I said, as one bibliophile to another. “So, what’s so good about Barnaby Rudge?”

“Ah, and there you have it, sir, there you have it.”

This alarmed me. The man spoke Dickensian and without a Newport accent.

“It’s a wonderfully baggy novel, cavernous and windblown with all manner of characters, all manner of characters.”

I raised an eyebrow, wondering when my windows were going to get done.

“Listen to this, sir, hark to what he says about the Secretary Gashford:

This gentleman had an overhanging brow, great hands and feet and ears, and a pair eyes that seemed to have made an unnatural retreat into his head and to have dug themselves a cave to hide in. Ain’t that good, sir. Tell me it’s good.”

“It’s very good, sir, capital in fact.” I was beginning to speak like him.

“Or this…”

“No. The windows. I get it. Barnaby Rudge.”

There were noises coming from the other side of the garden fence.  I thought I heard giggling.

I’ll end on this, sir – just so you know this is a book you must read. He’s talking about Mrs Miggs:

With an expression of face in which a great number of opposite ingredients such as mischief, cunning, malice, triumph and patient expectation, were all mixed up together in a kind of physiognomical punch…

“Physiognomical punch, isn’t that wonderful? Can you see it… Physiognomical punch.”

I told him I could, and that I would read the book, and that the water was cold; would he like more?

The strange thing is that I did read Barnaby Rudge and lost myself in its vast, sprawling, chaotic and evocative world. The bugger was right. But I’ll leave it there in case any of you fears the ancient mariner’s curse is infectious, and the window cleaner will one day knock on your door.

Sometimes I wonder whether he ever did read Gormenghast and what he thought of Prunesquallor and Nanny Slagg:

Do you like babies my dear Mrs Slagg?’ asked the doctor, shifting the poor woman on to his other acutely bended knee-joint and stretching out his former leg as though to ease it.  ‘Are you fond of the little creatures, taken by and large?’

‘Babies?’ said Mrs Slagg in the most animated tone that she had so far used.  ‘I could eat the little darlings, sir, I could eat them up!’

I never found out. I asked him on his next visit and he just tapped his nose and winked, like window cleaners do. And then soon after that we moved from Newport to Monmouth and never saw him again. I still live in hope that one day he might accost another householder with the same artfully designed trap, but this time proclaiming the merits of Gormenghast and Titus Groan.