From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Peter Cheyney (22 February 1896 — 26 June 1951) was a British crime fiction writer who flourished between 1936 and 1951. Cheyney is the author of hard-boiled short stories and novels, some of which were adapted to film; his character Lemmy Caution was famously appropriated by French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard for the science fiction movie Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution.
His other memorable creation is Slim Callaghan, a somewhat disreputable private detective most at home in the less savory sections of London. Although his novels sold in the millions during his lifetime, he is almost forgotten today, and his works are mostly out of print.
Life and career
Born in 1896, Peter Cheyney lived only 55 years, until June 1951. For much of his early life, Cheyney occupied himself as a police reporter and crime investigator, and until he became successful as a crime novelist, he was often quite poor. But this changed in 1936, when Cheyney wrote his first novel, the Lemmy Caution thriller This Man Is Dangerous, and followed it up 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.
A meticulous researcher, Cheyney kept a massive set of files on criminal activity in London until they were destroyed during the Blitz in 1941; but Cheyney's innate industry soon had him back on track, rebuilding his decimated collection of clippings. Cheyney dictated his work, although he did not (as did Edgar Wallace) dictate at a breakneck pace. Typically, Cheyney would "act out" his stories for his secretary, 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 a new degree of realism to espionage fiction. Indeed, in their casual brutality and general "grubbiness," the "Dark" novels seem to have prefigured much of the Cold War fiction that held readers spellbound in the mid to late 1960s. No less an authority than Anthony Boucher placed these later works in the context of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad.
In particular, 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 sole objective is to decimate 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 hard liquor, and still remain an effective counter agent.
From all accounts, Cheyney lived much like his characters, always on edge, working too hard, living the fast and careless life with a breathtaking abandon that eventually caught up with him. A good deal of this tension and haste is found in his writing, often to good effect; one sometimes gets the feeling that Cheyney is simply dictating to fill up the page, but even as he does so, the attention he pays to minute details of everyday existence in the process makes his characters and their world all the more real to his readers.
Cheyney published one semi-autobiographical volume, Making Crime Pay, and after his death, at least two biographical essays appeared in posthumous collections. One essay, by Viola Garvin, is entitled simply "Peter Cheyney," and appears in Velvet Johnnie, a posthumous collection of Cheyney's short stories (London: Collins, 1952, pages 7-32). The other essay is anonymous, but perhaps a bit more clear-eyed; it appears in the Cheyney collection Calling Mr. Callaghan (London: Todd, 1953, pages 7-16). In addition, Cheyney published one volume of short stories, advice to critics, and a few poems in No Ordinary Cheyney (London: Faber and Faber, 1948).
Cheyney was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.