“During the war years the Cheyney ‘Dark’ novels were a thorn in the side of our Nazi enemies. Circulated through Sweden into Denmark and Norway, they carried a message to those who needed cheer and encouragement in their secret and dangerous tasks. It was a Swedish publisher who smuggled Dark Duet into Paris, while the Germans still occupied the city. Dark Duet, set up by Resistance Units, was the first British novel to be openly on sale in Paris as the German troops moved out ... Cheyney’s agents – both women – were missing: one in a concentration camp, the other shot by the Gestapo” 

- from the jacket blurb of Dark Interlude

Peter Cheyney was selling – even during the WWII – up to two million books a year, and peaked post-war at five million. His fame cannot be underestimated, but it is in stark contrast to awareness of his work now.
 

This is not to make any claims for important literature, just to set his place in history. The style was incredibly popular and clearly struck a chord in war-torn Europe. There was contemporary criticism of the violence (but it was nothing in comparison to the real violence the serviemen were seeing). Perhaps it was the ruthlessness that was shocking: that even a desirable woman was not safe from a sudden violent end.

You’ll find no actual sex in any of the books, but many pages of flirtation and seduction. The descriptions of the characters’ clothing and demeanours are often seductions in themselves, there is much mutual appreciation and then it’s on with the story. Cheyney’s mother was a corset-maker and the family lived above the shop, so Peter had a complete understanding, and obvious enjoyment, of fabrics and clothes design, both in his writing and his own wardrobe.

Although not entirely enlightened in some areas, there is no shortage of strong women in Cheyney’s writing. The women are generally independent, intelligent, and often the main protagonists. Some of the stories of Julia Herron are even written in the first person. She is not a man in women’s clothing, but has an entirely diferrent (and equally effective) set of thought patterns. Peter Cheyney’s life was full of strong women, not least his mother who helped support him even into his married life. His wives and other female friends were never shrinking violets.

His writing started early, but his style matured late in his career with the ‘Dark’ books, featuring the characters of Quayle, Guelvada, Kane, Vallon and O’Mara. Despite this, his best-known creations remain the earlier American detective Lemmy Caution and the English Slim Callaghan, starring in almost half his novels between them, and nearly all the film adaptations.

© 2020 Adrian Sensicle.

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