22 February 1896|
|Died||26 June 1951
Reginald Evelyn Peter Southouse Cheyney (22 February 1896 – 26 June 1951) — known as Peter Cheyney — was a British crime fiction writer who flourished between 1936 and 1951. Cheyney is the author of hard-boiled short stories and novels in the American style, most famously a series of ten novels about agent/detective Lemmy Caution, which, starting in 1953, were adapted into a series of French movies, all starring Eddie Constantine. (The most well-known of these, the 1965 science fiction film Alphaville, was not directly based on a Cheyney novel.)
His other memorable creation is Slim Callaghan, a somewhat disreputable private detective most at home in the less savoury sections of London.
Although Cheyney's novels sold in the millions during his lifetime, he is almost forgotten today, and his works are mostly out of print.
Peter Cheyney was born in 1896, the youngest of five children. He began to write skits for the theater as a teenager, but this ended when World War I began. He enlisted in 1915, was wounded in battle in 1916, and ended his military service in 1917. He published two volumes of poetry, Poems of Love and War and To Corona and Other Poems, in 1916.
Starting in the late 1920s, Cheyney occupied himself as a police reporter and crime investigator. Until he became successful as a crime novelist, he was often quite poor. It is said that he got his start through a bet; when Cheyney remarked that anyone one could write a book in the idiom of the American thriller, he was bet five pounds that he could not. Cheyney sold his first story as the result of this bet.
Cheyney wrote his first novel, the Lemmy Caution thriller This Man Is Dangerous in 1936 and followed it with the first Slim Callaghan novel, The Urgent Hangman in 1938. The immediate success of these two novels assured a flourishing new career, and Cheyney abandoned his work as a freelance investigator. Sales were brisk; in 1946 alone, 1,524,785 copies of Cheyney books were sold worldwide.
A meticulous researcher, Cheyney kept a massive set of files on criminal activity in London until they were destroyed during the Blitz in 1941; he soon began to replace his collection of clippings. Cheyney dictated his work. Typically Cheyney would "act out" his stories for his secretary, Miss Sprauge, who would copy them down in shorthand and type them up later.
The Slim Callaghan novels and short stories move along at a brisk and confident clip and his "Dark" series was widely praised during World War II for bringing more realism to espionage fiction. In their casual brutality and general "grubbiness," the "Dark" novels seem to have foreshadowed much of the Cold War fiction of the mid to late 1960s. Anthony Boucher placed these later works in the context of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad.
The characterization of Ernest Guelvada in the "Dark" series is one of the high points of Cheyney's career. A cheerfully sadistic war operative whose objective is to deplete the ranks of opposing forces in a leisurely but thorough fashion, the loquacious Guelvada still finds the time to dress immaculately, drink immoderate amounts of alcohol and remain a counter agent.
Cheyney published one volume of short stories, advice to critics and a few poems in No Ordinary Cheyney (London: Faber and Faber, 1948).
Cheyney died at age 55, after having fallen into a coma. He was buried in Putney Vale.
From all accounts, Cheyney lived much like his characters, working too hard, living the fast and careless life with a breathtaking abandon that eventually caught up with him. In addition to his literary skills, “he was a fencer of repute, a golfer, a crack pistol-shot, and a jiu-jitsu expert.”
List of works
- This Man Is Dangerous (1936) — filmed as Cet homme est dangereux (France; Jean Sacha, 1953)
- Poison Ivy (1937) — filmed as La môme vert-de-gris (France; Bernard Borderie, 1953)
- Dames Don't Care (1937) — filmed as Les femmes s'en balancent (France; Bernard Borderie, 1954)
- Can Ladies Kill? (1938)
- Don't Get Me Wrong (1939) — filmed as Vous pigez (France; Victor Trivas and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, 1955)
- You'd Be Surprised (1940)
- Your Deal, My Lovely (1941) — filmed as À toi de faire... mignonne (France; Bernard Borderie (1963)
- Never a Dull Moment (1942)
- You Can Always Duck (1943)
- I'll Say She Does! (1945) — filmed as Comment qu'elle est! (France; Bernard Borderie, 1960)
- The Urgent Hangman (1938)
- Dangerous Curves (1939), US title: Callaghan
- You Can't Keep the Change (1940)
- It Couldn't Matter Less (1941), US title: Set-up for Murder
- Sorry You've Been Troubled (1942), US title: Farewell to the Admiral
- The Unscrupulous Mr. Callaghan (1943)
- They Never Say When (1944)
- Uneasy Terms (1946)
The Dark Series
- Dark Duet (1942), also as The Counterspy Murders
- The Stars Are Dark (1943), also as The London Spy Murders
- The Dark Street (1944), also as The Dark Street Murders
- Sinister Errand (1945), also as Sinister Murders
- Dark Hero (1946), also as The Case of the Dark Hero
- Dark Interlude (1947), also as The Terrible Night
- Dark Wanton (1948), also as Case of the Dark Wanton
- Dark Bahama (1950), also as I'll Bring Her Back
- Another Little Drink (1940), also as Premeditated Murder and A Trap for Bellamy
- Night Club (1945), also as Dressed to Kill
- Dance without Music (1947)
- Try Anything Twice (1948), also as Undressed to Kill
- One of Those Things (1949), also as Mistress Murder
- You Can Call It a Day (1949), also as The Man Nobody Saw
- Lady, Behave! (1950), also as Lady Beware
- Ladies Won't Wait (1951), also as Cocktails and the Killer
Short Story Collections
- You Can’t Hit a Woman (1937)
- Knave Takes Queen (1939; enlarged edition, 1950)
- Mr. Caution – Mr. Callaghan (1941)
- Making Crime Pay (1944), collected stories, articles, radio plays
- The Curiosity of Etienne MacGregor (1947), also as The Sweetheart of the Razors
- No Ordinary Cheyney (1948)
- Velvet Johnnie (1952)
- G-man at the Yard (1953)
- Calling Mr. Callaghan (1953)
- The Adventures of Julia (1954), US title: The Killing Game
- He Walked in Her Sleep (1954), also as MacTavish
- The Mystery Blues (1954), also as Fast Work
Biographies and memoirs
A 1954 biography of Cheyney, Peter Cheyney: Prince of Hokum, was written by Michael Harrison. (London: N. Spearman, 1954.)
Cheyney published a semi-autobiographical volume, Making Crime Pay and after his death at least two biographical essays appeared in posthumous collections. An essay by Viola Garvin, "Peter Cheyney" appears in Velvet Johnnie a posthumous collection of Cheyney's short stories (London: Collins, 1952, pages 7–32). The other essay is anonymous. It appears in the Cheyney collection Calling Mr. Callaghan (London: Todd, 1953, pages 7–16).
- Dedicated website
- Biography and bibliography of Peter Cheyney from thrillingdetective.com
- Peter Cheyney Collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin
- The Life & Times of Peter Cheyney, Chapter 1: East-End Boy, petercheyney.co.uk
- The Life & Times of Peter Cheyney, Chapter 2: Wars, Wives & Work, petercheyney.co.uk
- "Peter Cheyney, 55, Novelist, Is Dead". The New York Times. June 6, 1951.