Seldom Serious

Apparently a critic once said that Peter Cheyney’s books made Mickey Spillane seem like Proust. I doubt if it was meant as a compliment, but if we’re talking about cutting to the essence of Pulp fiction then maybe there is no greater one. For if Proust might use many thousands of words to beautifully say not really very much at all then Cheyney takes hardly any words and says a heap of things that might well cause offence, and hilariously, grubbily so. You can’t get more Pulp than that, after all. And whilst public opinion is surely no signifier of lasting cultural value, certainly Cheyney’s sales figures (1.5 million books sold in 1946 alone, for example) would suggest that his books at the very least tapped into contemporary fascinations with extraordinary success. The French certainly seemed to dig his books, particularly those featuring the harder than hard-boiled American agent and detective Lemmy Caution, with many film adaptations released through the 1950s and ’60s. Ironically, the most famous of these, Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ may have Caution as a character (played as always superbly by Eddie Constantine) but in a story not actually penned by Cheyney.

Out of print and out of fashion for some time, the Lemmy Caution series is now being republished by the redoubtable Dean Street Press alongside Cheyney’s novels featuring British detective character Slim Callaghan and the ‘Dark’ series of espionage thriller books. I’ve just polished off the first in each of these series and I’m pleased to report that the 1936 debut of Lemmy Caution in ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ is as wildly entertaining and hilariously offensive to 2022 sensitivities as the Spillane reference might suggest. It’s certainly about as far from delicately composed prose as it is possible to get; a world where every woman is a “dame” and caricatured mobsters inhabit England’s green and pleasant lands with schemes for kidnap, blackmail and cold blooded murder. It’s all Edward G Robinson, Dick Powell and Veronica Lake larking gleefully about, stuffing Hammett and Chandler into a blender and flavouring the results with gut-rot moonshine. So when Caution points out that “she’s a nice kid, but she likes to pretend she ain’t. She’s one of them girls who’s had too much money an’ too much of her own way” then it is easy to picture Bogart in ‘The Big Sleep’, lurking in the shadow of his Buick, face spotlit by the moon or headlights and smoke curling out of his lips. Sure, it may feel stilted and incongruous to have these staples of the Hollywood fiction factory toting their automatics around the English landscape, but as a blast of escapist comic-book Noir ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ is hugely enjoyable.

Whilst the wholesale importation of Pulp Americana in the form of Lenny Caution might have met the needs of a thrill-seeking British public, it seems there was nevertheless a significant call for anglicising the genre. Enter, therefore, London private detective Slim Callaghan in 1938’s ‘The Urgent Hangman’. Yet whilst the characters and locations might be English, the flavour is still decidedly Trans-Atlantic and Pulpy. So when Callaghan suggests that a woman “knew quite a lot about life and practically everything that there was to know about men” then it is still easy to picture Sam Spade leaning back in an office chair, face cut across by the light cast through blinds and smoke curling out of his lips. The only difference might be Spade played by Bogarde rather than Bogart, the cigarettes Players rather than Lucky Strikes.

Certainly Callaghan, whilst sporting a deeply buried (and rather vaguely sketched) righteous moral code is hardly the kind of character who would make you stop and think that maybe Cheyney was some kind of left-leaning Hammett type. On the contrary, it would be easy to laugh at these books and portray the tropes that Cheyney rolls out as the wet-dreams of Brexiteers; a mediated nostalgia for an outrageously exaggerated and comic fiction recast as historical accuracy that might go down well with the rabid euro-sceptical ultra-right wing loons apparently in charge of British government policy in 2022. To such people the comic-book Continental character who spouts such lines as “‘I spoke to ’eem. ’E said I mus’ tell the trut’, that I mus’ not get into some troubles wiz ze police.’” might be read as less ”Allo ‘Allo’ slapstick and more ‘Foreigners as de-humanised entities’. Quite how Cheyney meant it is, at best, rather clouded by the fogs of history. One might want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then again…

If I had stumbled on these Caution and Callaghan books when I was digging those Hard Case Crime reissues nearly two decades ago (was it really 2004 when I came across Max Phillips’ ‘Fade To Blonde’?!) I would surely have devoured them all in an instant. Sure, if you want something more resonantly London-centric then you should go for the likes of James Curtis’ tremendous 1936 title ‘The Gilt Kid’ or ‘There Ain’t No Justice’ from the following year. Curtis’ books might also be ‘better’ than Cheyney’s, but there is certainly enough in ‘The Urgent Hangman’ and ‘This Man Is Dangerous’ to make me think of picking up further instalments when I’m in need of decompressing my brain.

The ‘Dark’ series of espionage thrillers, meanwhile, perhaps translate better to 2022, although again you’d want to take that translation with a hefty does of salt, particularly if you are not white and male. Especially male. Because if Cheyney’s Pulp fiction makes Spillane read like Proust, then ‘Dark Duet’ makes Ian Fleming read like Joyce.

With it’s three (four at a push) inter-connected stories, ‘Dark Duet’ spans wartime London, Lisbon and (briefly, tangentially) Eire, it stars the characters of Michael Kane (an English spy who does not play cricket) and Belgian Ernie Guelvada, both of whom lay waste to the plans of Nazi counter-intelligence networks. First published in 1942, ‘Dark Duet’ is understandably a slice of enormously patriotic propaganda and is none the worse for that. That the bad guys will get their comeuppance is never really in doubt, nor is the assurance that the good guys will get the girls. As many of them as they might want, in the case of Guelvada, who has all the ‘best’ lines:

“A woman was like a harp. You could play tunes upon her if you knew how to do it. Because most women never ceased to think in terms of love; they laid themselves open to the operations and schemes of all sorts and conditions of men.”

“For a woman—especially when she loves deeply—is unable to think logically—whatever feminists may say.”

“how annoying it would be if a woman deeply in love were able to think logically. What bad times many men would have.”

Now maybe you can’t get past those kinds of lines, and that would be fine. They are not attractive, after all, and whilst one could be generous and suggest that it’s far from clear if Cheyney means us to take them as evidence of Guelvada’s unsavoury morals (one can just hear those aforementioned eurosceptic right-wing loons baying “he is Belgian, after all,”) one does rather feel that it’s perhaps more indicative of Cheyney’s own leanings, or at least of pedalling to the atmosphere of the times.

It would appear, from a cursory glance, that Kane and Guelvada do not recur in the ‘Dark’ series, although given that we are dealing with caricatures rather than developing characters that’s hardly a problem. Personally I’d rather go with the likes of Cheyney contemporaries Geoffrey Household and Eric Ambler or the later Le Carre and Deighton for my spy thriller kicks, but there is certainly something of the swashbuckling John Buchan in ‘Dark Duet’ that is marvellously entertaining. Cheyney may play to the cheap seats, but there is nothing much wrong with that after all.

It is inevitable that some will point out that Cheyney’s books are sexist, misogynist pieces of trash that should have remained buried in the wastelands of cancelled culture, and I would not argue significantly against this, other than to mildly suggest that fiction is not fact and that the fantasies we might consume do not define our personal morals or ethics. And as that little Belgian assassin Guelvada says in ‘Dark Duet’: “Do not believe that life is ever really serious. Sometimes it is a little dramatic. Sometimes merely boring. But seldom serious.””

The ‘Lemmy Caution’, ‘Slim Callaghan’ and ‘Dark’ series of books by Peter Cheyney are published by Dean Street Press on 7th February with new retro-themed cover art. They are available to pre-order now.

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