I came across Peter Cheyney when I was somewhere between twelve and thirteen. A church bazzar 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 yet 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.
When I realised no book had been written about him since 1954, I decided to make amends for my earlier ignorance and immersed myself in his books. I found him ‘childish’ in the good sense, an overgrown schoolboy craving excitement, danger and romance. And like an overgrown schoolboy, he had strange ideas about women, and saw most things in black and white.
In his books you will find misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism and chauvinism, and at its core a deep vulnerability. In terms of market forces they reflect a world long past, one far different from ours but worth understanding. Read Cheyney, Behave and judge for yourself.