Peter Cheyney Essay - Critical Essays

Reginald Southouse Cheyney


Peter Cheyney’s most notable literary trait was his ability to surprise his readers with unexpected twists, hidden motives, and double-crosses. This unpredictability marked nearly all Cheyney’s highly popular works and can even be traced to the short stories Cheyney wrote during the 1920’s. His first recurring character, Alonzo MacTavish, appeared in a series of stories in which Cheyney honed his skills as a creator of surprising plots.


MacTavish is a gentleman jewel thief and rogue patterned after E. W. Hornung’s amateur cracksman, A. J. Raffles. The story “Sold!” furnishes a good example of Cheyney’s use of surprise. In it, one of MacTavish’s gang seemingly sells out his boss by alerting the police to MacTavish’s next heist. When arrested with the goods, MacTavish indignantly claims that the stones in his possession are duplicates he purchased elsewhere and that he had arranged to show the fakes to the owner of the genuine jewels that night. He even challenges the police to summon the owner to verify his story; arriving at headquarters later, the owner does so. While this meeting is taking place, however, one of MacTavish’s men steals the real jewels from the owner’s safe, the creation of the duplicates having been MacTavish’s ploy to lure the owner away from his home and supply a solid alibi during the robbery. Both police and reader spot the ruse too late. Even after the reader learns to expect a surprise in a Cheyney story, the author’s misdirection usually produces enough twists to outfox any wary reader.

Lemmy Caution Series

The surprises in the Lemmy Caution books, which Cheyney began in 1936, center primarily on their action and pace, qualities that made the books very popular in England. Cheyney was the first British writer to attempt to copy the idiom of the hard-boiled crime fiction that appeared in pulp magazines such as Black Mask and Dime Detective. Mixing imitation Yankee slang with the argot of cops and crooks, narrator-hero Lemmy Caution (“let me caution you”) pursues both foes and women with unshackled energy: “The big curtain that is swung across the dance floor goes away to one side an’ one of the niftiest legged choruses I have ever lamped starts in to work a number that would have woke up a corpse.”

G-man Caution was shaped by the popularity of characters such as Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams and Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner. Daly and Bellem both published regularly in the pulps; every issue of Spicy Detective featured a Dan Turner story. The American gangster film, which also rose to great popularity at this time, supplied another likely influence on the Caution books. Films such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and the many others ground out by Warner Bros. acquainted the public with Hollywood’s version of mobsters. A subplot involving rival Chicago bootleggers in Cheyney’s novel Dark Hero (1946), for example, broadly parallels Howard Hawks’s 1932 film Scarface, and references to film stars and filmgoing dot many of Cheyney’s books. Also new and popular in the early 1930’s were newspaper comic-strip cops such as Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy (syndicated in 1931), Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 (1933), and Dashiell Hammett’s and Alex Raymond’s Secret Agent X-9 (1934). The exaggerated, full-throttle style of the Caution books even reads like a novelized comic strip for adults, as in this example from Don’t Get Me Wrong (1939):Some little curtains at the back part an’ out comes Zellara. Here is a dame who has got somethin’. She is a real Mexican. Little, slim an’ made like a piece of indiarubber. She has got a swell shape an’ a lovely face with a pair of the naughtiest lookin’ brown eyes I have ever seen in my life. She sings a song an’ goes into a rumba dance. This baby has got what it takes all right. Me, I have seen dames swing it before but I reckon that if this Zellara hadda been let loose in the Garden of Eden Adam woulda taken a quick run-out powder an’ the serpent woulda been found hidin’ behind the rose-bushes with his fingers crossed. At the risk of repeatin’ myself I will tell you guys that this dame is a one hundred per cent exclusive custom-built 1939 model fitted with all the speed gadgets an’ guarantees not to skid goin’ round the corners.

When the pulps gave way to paperback originals, detectives such as Race Williams, Dan Turner, Hammett’s Continental Op, the Shadow, Doc Savage, and others made room for the likes of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, who in many ways is a more sexual, violent version of Lemmy Caution. The tongue-in-cheek humor of the Caution books turned up later in paperbacks by writers such as Richard S. Prather. A clear echo of the voice of Lemmy Caution can be heard in Prather’s private eye Shell Scott: “Man, she had a shape to make corpses kick open caskets—and she was dead set on giving me rigor mortis.” Another of Cheyney’s literary descendants was Ian Fleming. Before writing Casino Royale (1953), the first James Bond novel, Fleming studied Cheyney’s work carefully. When a reviewer later referred to Bond as a...

(The entire section is 2158 words.)