It’s already two months since I’ve ventured along the Lowman valley. The last time I was here the leaves were falling like bronze confetti; today the trees are bare and the freshly cut hedges catch the weak January sun like spiky flat tops. This lack of coverage means the vistas are even finer, and over on my right I glimpse a body of water that I learn later is called simply ‘The Lake’. Further investigations suggests it is likely at least in part the result of a flooded quarry. At Dog Down Cross the wind whips in from the North East, blasting the already decayed signpost whose fingers pointing to Bampton, Clayhanger, Hockworthy and Ashbrittle are barely legible under their layers of lichen. Meanwhile the finger that should point down the valley to Huxham is lost entirely, though whether this is the result of the ravages of time or vandalism by locals looking to confuse tourists is anyone’s guess.
Another afternoon ride in the chill of January sunshine is punctuated by two separate buzzard sightings. The first I disturb from its perch on a fencepost as I pass over Burrow Bridge, it’s lazy sweep of wings taking it coasting over the fields towards the forest. The second is already airborne, flying in front of me as I ride up Westcott Lane, afternoon sunlight giving a soft warmth to its pale underbody and wings. I watch it glide over the field in which a horse is idly grazing, its red overcoat streaked with mud. We blink and it is gone.
The penetrating cold of the morning fog has mostly evaporated by the time I’m heading out, burning away to reveal the brittle blue of a January sky. The low sun reflects blindingly bright rays from the wet, mud coated lanes but I’m not complaining because the faint warmth is charming and most welcome. I head east and south, a vague notion of seeing the sea at Sidmouth again the driving force behind my sunny pootle. When I arrive on the seafront the calm of the previous few days has started to stir and the rising south easterly brings waves churning onto the beach. The sea’s murky brown contrasts nicely with the watery blue above. Leaning against the prom railings I reflect that an espresso would go nicely with the energy bar I’ve plucked from my back pocket. The little kiosk that might usually offer such treats is, however, like many other premises, resolutely closed behind vanilla coloured iron gratings. The fact that is is called ‘The Summer Cafe’ really should have prepared me for this probability.
Two more ‘Road Closed’ signs, this time impenetrable even for a determined cyclist, means a slightly different route to the one intended. This feels much less of a problem with the sun shining and nothing of pressing importance to get home for. I almost misjudge the timing on this rare afternoon ride though, and as the sun starts dipping behind Danes Wood and a sliver of silvery mist begins to form in the valley, my blinking front light finally runs out of power.
Another grey day with the clouds skulking low along the ridges of Ashclyst and West Hill. For much of the ride my glasses are coated in droplets of moisture which makes everything appear even more gloomy than reality. At least it isn’t actually raining.
Outside Rockbeare I ignore three ‘Road Closed’ signs in the hope there will be a way through for bicycles and pedestrians. A crew of five or six is re-surfacing a stretch of tarmac and I’m quite prepared to admit defeat and retrace back to try another route, but they wave me through along a path freshly rolled flat by their roller. I daren’t glance back for fear of having left 25mm indentations in their work.
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.
Through Thorverton and up to Raddon for the first time in a while, the churned and flooded road at the top reminding me why I rarely come this way anymore. At Chapel Corner the big white wooden letters that spelled out LOVE have long since disappeared, replaced now by an abandoned motorcycle helmet impaled on a post. A warning triangle rests in the tree and ivy is inexorably encasing the helmet as a hideous scrap sculpture of a cow looks on impassively. The ‘cow’ is masked and wears a cowboy hat. It all feels like a hideous metaphor for the times.
The Met Office forecasts a window of relative brightness before rain at midday. They’re based in Exeter, so they should know, right? But approaching Rockbeare at half past ten I can see the unmistakable murk of cloud encroaching from the south west, and sure enough, by the time I ride through the village the initial mizzle has turned to steady rain. By the time I am through Marsh Green and onto the climb of Rockbeare Hill it has turned torrential. Beside the driveway of ‘Ashbridge’ a small blue and black football sits forlornly in a puddle and the water that runs down my face and into my gasping mouth tastes faintly of salt.
This traditional new year’s day ride is perhaps the first ever without gloves or any kind of headwear under my helmet. I could so easily have forgone the knee warmers too. Crazy times. Much more typically, however, the farm tracks are awash with muck and the detritus of recent floods. This is strangely reassuring.
A lot of work has been done cutting hedgerows too, and the pay-off for dodging hawthorn fragments is the newly opened vistas that give the occasional glimpse of otherwise hidden gems of houses nestled behind briefly bared trees. In the hedgerow by Little Loxbrook a detached stub of branch remains wrapped around a fencepost around which it had grown, the rest of its limb rudely sliced above and below. As I ride past it looks like some ghastly decapitation left as warning to others.
Sleet – Princess Diana of Wales (from ‘Princess Diana of Wales‘ LP)
Suddenly Now Blurry – Ffion (from ‘Their Voyage Into Radiance‘ LP)
Vattnets kullkastande spegel – Anaglyfparken (from ‘Anaglyfparken‘ LP)
The Darkest Ending – Felt (from ‘The Pictorial Jackson Review’ LP)
Stillness – Poppy Ackroyd (from ‘Pause‘ LP)
Dusk – Library Tapes (from ‘Dusk‘ LP)
Song Thrush – Apta (from ‘Endangered Species 1998‘ LP)
When the North Wind Blows – Rowan Morrison (from ‘Bride of the Wintertide‘ LP)
January Snows – The Owl Service (from ‘Swearing On The Horns‘ LP)
A Cold War City – AMMO (digital single)
Silhouette By The Motorway – Torpa (from ‘In Action‘ LP)
Cinematic Lightness – Nurse Predator & Chris Hughes (from ‘Music for Low Luxury‘ LP)
The Smell of Trouble – Pumajaw (from ‘Scapa Foolscap‘ LP)
Extract – Seefeel (from ‘Succour‘ LP)
In My Heaven All Faucets Are Fountains – yes/and (from ‘yes/and‘ LP)
The Deep Valley of Shadow – Reiko and Tori Kudo (from ‘Tangerine‘ LP)
Adios Pamplona – Testbild! (digital single)
Lite Bites – Position Normal (digital single)
Wax Limousine – Wesley Gonzalez (from ‘Wax Limousine‘ LP)
Flames – Martin Carr (digital single)
TV Flicker – Pale Blue Eyes (digital single)
Too Late Now – Wet Leg (from ‘Wet Leg‘ LP)
Paul McCartney – Laugh (7″ single. YouTube)
The Right Experience – Intastella (from ‘Intastella Overdrive’ LP)
Oh Yes – Paris Angels (from ‘C91‘ 3CD boxset)
Snake – Medalark Eleven (from ‘C91‘ 3CD boxset)
Wah Wah – George Is Lord (digital single)
The Skehans Song – Simon Bromide (from ‘Following The Moon‘ LP)
When The Magic Goes Wrong – The Toni Tubna Trio (from paperback book)
How Did You Die? – Lazy Smoke (from ‘Corridor of Faces‘ LP)
Jealous Guy – Hurray for the Riff Raff (from ‘My Dearest Darkest Neighbour‘ LP)
Hammond Song – The Colourfield (from ‘Virgins and Philistines’ LP)
The Train – The Roches (from ‘The Roches’ LP)
We Got Lost – The Bye Bye Blackbirds (digital single)
On The Last Day (We Spend Together) – David Christian And The Pinecone Orchestra (from ‘For Those We Met On The Way‘ LP)
Ain’t That Always The Way (Lonesome Cowboy Original Mix) – Paul Quinn (from digital EP)
Different Drum – The Stone Poneys (YouTube)
Don’t Call On Me – The Monkees (YouTube)
Stream the full mix on Mixcloud