Peter Cheyney was born Reginald Evelyn Peter Southouse Cheyney on February 22, 1896, in the East End of London. His father helped operate a fish stall at Billingsgate, and his mother ran a corset shop in Whitechapel. Cheyney started writing while still in grammar school, publishing poems and articles in boys’ magazines. When his oldest brother found work as a performer in music halls, Cheyney became attracted to vaudeville and the stage. At seventeen, he was reworking comedy skits in knock-about farces and even toured briefly with one company as its stage manager.
World War I interrupted this informal apprenticeship, and Cheyney enlisted in the army, rising to the rank of lieutenant. After the war, he published two volumes of sentimental verse and wrote many songs and hundreds of short stories. In 1919, he married the first of his three wives.
Cheyney’s initial attempt at a crime novel, a manuscript intended for the Sexton Blake series, was rejected in 1923. He was also undistinguished in his work as a shopkeeper, bookmaker, radio performer (adopting the first name Peter), politician (supporting Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists), and editor.
At the age of forty, Cheyney achieved popularity on his own with his first published novel, This Man Is Dangerous (1936), the book that introduced Lemmy Caution. When a reviewer predicted that readers would reject any Cheyney book not about Caution, Cheyney accepted the challenge and wrote The Urgent Hangman (1937), the first of many Slim Callaghan novels. Nevertheless, Cheyney considered the espionage novels that he wrote in the 1940’s his best work.
One of the most prolific and popular crime writers of his day, Cheyney published at least two books a year, though he was more popular in England and France than in the United States. He died in 1951.