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.
In the mid 1930’s Cheyney was finding his feet, his first three novels introducing Lemmy Caution, with its bizarre cockney interpretation of American ‘gangster-speak’.
So why write a book about him, other than the fact that the only biography of Cheyney was one written by a fairly uncritical friend in 1954? The reason is the same reason I’m drawn to the works of Edgar Wallace and Sapper, Spillane, and Richard S Prather. They may not be great literature, though they offer some wonderful vignettes, but they open windows into cultures and mores now largely unknown. Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer illustrate wonderfully the underlying unease and hysteria in great swathes of the population after the Great War; they offer insights into the fantasies and prejudices of ordinary readers. Peter Cheyney, coming a little later, does the same, his greatest achievement catching the zeitgeist of the Second World War in his justly acclaimed ‘Dark Series.’
The Dark series was immensely popular because it tapped in to what people wanted to believe. There is little subtlety in the books. Women are lovingly described for men far from home; and in his lavish and detailed accounts of what his female characters are wearing, Cheyney appeals to women suffering from rationing and austerity. To both he offers wish fulfilment when wishes are all that’s un-rationed. He also offered hope.
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.
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 denied —a startling loosening of sexual mores.
Five years of total war brought unimaginable violence to ‘ordinary people’ and when faced with disruption and imminent death moral restraint appears quaint rather than admirable. War coarsened in its need for immediacy and the pleasures of ‘now.’ The 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 World War II and was not the preserve of the young. German propaganda, like Cheyney was aware of this, many of their leaflets playing on the fears of soldiers far from home and distant wives.
e Under Fire,’ John Costello’s central premise was that the drama and excitement of the war eroded moral restraints, the totality of war bringing the urgent licentiousness of the front line closer to home. In the words of one American soldier: “We were young and could die tomorrow.”
Costello’s analysis, an eye-opener in 1985, was predated by Peter Cheyney and brought to life in his ‘Dark’ series forty years before. What makes Cheyney so significant and explains his popularity is that his books reflected what officialdom wouldn’t, and reflected without judgment.
In the world Cheyney, Behave examines, you will find misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism and chauvinism and, at its core, idealism and profound vulnerability. 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. In terms of market forces his books reflect a world long past, one far different from ours but fascinating and worth understanding. Read Cheyney, Behave and judge for yourself. Alternatively if it’s a wet and windy day and you have nothing better to do, feel free to visit my author page and/or blog.