Peter Cheyney was, and so far remains Britain's leading writer of hard-boiled fiction. He created three memorable characters: Lemmy Caution, a ruthless machine-gun toting FBI agent; Slim Callaghan, a British private eye; and himself. According to his friend and fellow writer Dennis Wheatley "he was the greatest liar unhung but a magnificent story teller."
Born Reginald Evelyn Peter Southouse Cheyney in London's Whitechapel, he was the youngest of five children, and was originally known as Reg. He tried various names including Evelyn and Everard, before finally settling for Peter. His father was a thoroughbred Cockney who worked at the Billingsgate fish market, a man who preferred drink to work. His wife eventually sent him packing. She was an industrious woman who would earn enough from making corsets to send young Reg to good schools. Her ambition was for him to become a solicitor.
War intervened and Cheyney was commissioned as a Lieutenant. According to Who's Who, he had been 'seriously wounded', but this was not a view shared by the medical board which soon rescinded his pension. He had lost part of an ear lobe.
Life in a solicitor's office didn't appeal to Reg who wanted to follow his oldest brother into show business. He picked up a few small parts, wrote some sketches and songs, and married a dancer. His wife then won a leading part in an Edgar Wallace musical Whirligig. Wallace was the leading popular novelist of that period and Cheyney tried his hand at fiction but without making any impact.
The turning point for Cheyney occurred in 1926, when he volunteered to serve the semi-official Organisation of the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) which had been set up in anticipation of the General Strike. The strike only lasted nine days, thanks in part to OMS which assembled 100,000 volunteers to handle essential services, including a daily newspaper - The British Gazette - edited by Winston Churchill.
OMS was managed by Sir George Makgill who also ran the Industrial Intelligence Board (IIB), a very secret intelligence service funded by big business. The IIB had strong links with Special Branch, MI5 and Britain's first fascist party - the British Fascists (BF) - which was founded in 1923.
During those nine days with OMS, Cheyney endeared himself to Colonel Ralph Bingham, one of Makgill's men who had been a member of the General Council of the BF. According to Bingham, 'Cheyney was very efficient · but he made a lot of enemies'.
Fortunately for Cheyney, Bingham - who was very well connected - had taken a shine to the younger man, and he made the right introductions. After Cheyney had met a senior police officer, he started ghosting true-crime stories for publication. Soon, Cheyney was running his own agency that handled both literary work and investigations.
In 1931, Cheyney joined Sir Oswald Mosley's New Party which had been funded by William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) the motor mogul. Cheyney headed up the youth movement, a gang of toughs popularly known as the 'biff boys' whose job was to counter the violence which characterised many political meetings. He also wrote a few articles for Action, the New Party's journal. According to Mosley, Cheyney was particularly good at the job of handling those who disrupted their meetings.
The New Party failed to make any electoral impact and it had folded by the end of the year. With financial backing from Mussolini, the Italian dictator, it was resuscitated the following year as the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Mosley then persuaded several key members of the BF to defect to his cause.
Cheyney was not involved with the BUF and he continued with his mixture of private eye work - both fact and fiction - until he hit pay dirt with This Man is Dangerous (1936). Thereafter, he continued to write at least two books a year until his health gave way.
Cheyney was a big man (6'2") who soon went bald. He was a flamboyant character and he sported a gold monocle, a red carnation, an ornate cloak and a double-barrelled name when such things were in fashion. He was good at golf, fencing, judo and boxing, and he ran a snazzy sports car.
He always tried to distance himself from his humble beginnings, as evidenced by his entry in Who's Who. Also, he only listed the last of his three wives, even though his second wife had brought two children with her. He never had any children of his own. After living in great style, he still left £53,000 - which was pretty serious money in those days.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The incredibly prolific Cheyney didn't limit himself to the exploits of Caution or Callaghan, both of whom became quite the sensations in France, and inspired a rash of popular film adaptations, most starring American actor Eddie Constantine. He created several other series characters, incuding Alonzo MacTavish, a sort of Saint-like adventurer, as well as Julia Herron, Abie Hymie Finkelstein, Etienne MacGregor, Shaun O'Mara and Everard Peter Quayle, and private eyes Nicholas Gale, Terence O'Day, Johnny Vallon and Carlyl O'Hara . Some of these charactrers appeared in a loosely connected series of books, all which had the word "dark" in their titles, that featured British and Nazi agents going at each other during and after WWII. Many consider these Cheyney's best work. Mind you, that's relative.
And, as contributor Philip Eagle correctly points out, no discussion of Cheyney can go by without at least mentioning "the oddest of Cheyney-derived projects -- Jean-Luc Godard's famous dystopian art movie Alphaville. It was originally subtitled "a strange adventure of Lemmy Caution" and featured Cheyney's character thrust into a surreal SF thriller with heavy philosphical overtones. Caution was played, as usual, by Eddie Constantine, who had played the role in most of the earlier, mainstream, French Caution films."
"The film credited Cheyney as writer of the original novel. I haven't read any Cheyney myself," Philip admits, "but from what I've heard I sincerely doubt that the film was actually based on a Cheyney book. The credit was probably simply an acknowledgement of the character's origins. I don't know if you like philosophical French art-house films, but I'd recommend you see it, if only to see one of the stranger uses to which the hard-boiled archetype has been put." In fact, in this one, Caution is, theoretically, a private eye, searching for a missing scientist in a futuristic Paris run by robots and overseen by a dictator.
NOTE: Much of Cheyney's short fiction was apparently first published in Britain in pamphlet form.
"A Double Double-Cross" (May 1924, Hutchinson's Mystery Story Magazine)
"Nice Work" (October 5, 1936, London Evening Standard; Lemmy Caution)
"G" Man at the Yard" (June 26, 1937, The Thriller)
"Night Club (1945, Poynings)
"The Man with the Red Beard" (1943, Todd)
"The Murder of Alonzo" (1943, Polybooks; Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Gangster" (June 1953, MacKill's Mystery Magazine)
"Matter of Habit" (August 1954, MacKill's Mystery Magazine)
"Love Can Be Deadly" (March 1955, The Saint Mystery Magazine)
Publication Date Unknown
"Abie Always Pays (Abie Hymie Finkelstein)
"Abie and the Gangsters (Abie Hymie Finkelstein)
"Abie in Hollywood (Abie Hymie Finkelstein)
"Abie the Sleuth (Abie Hymie Finkelstein)
"Account Rendered" (Slim Callaghan)
"The Affair of Mrs. Lotis Leaf (Etienne MacGregor)
"Ain't Love a Scream (Lemmy Caution)
"Alonzo-Sportsman!" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Angel in the Sky "
"The Arrest (Alonzo MacTavish)
"At the Grape-Vine" (Slim Callaghan)
"La Belle Dame Sans Souci"
The Big Bluff" (Slim Callaghan)
"The Big Shot" (Lemmy Caution)
"Big-Time Stuff" (Lemmy Caution)
"Birthday for Callaghan" (Slim Callaghan)
"The Biter Bit" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Black Mantilla" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Black-Out" (Slim Callaghan)
"Callaghan Plus Cupid" (Slim Callaghan)
"The Callaghan Touch" (Slim Callaghan)
'Cash, Please!" (Etienne MacGregor)
"Checkmate" (Etienne MacGregor)
"Chicago Pay-Off "
"China Tea" (Etienne MacGregor)
"Chinese Music" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Christmas for Callaghan" (Slim Callaghan)
"Clash with Doctor Klaat" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Cocktail for Cupid"
"Dames Are So Dizzy" (Lemmy Caution)
"Dance Without Music" (Caryl O'Hara; possibly rewritten as a Slim Callaghan story)
The Date After Dark" (Slim Callaghan)
"The De Lanier Technique"
"Death in the Lift"
The Death on Panhandle"
"Delayed Action" (Terence O'Day)
"The Demure Lady" (Etienne MacGregor)
"The Dencourt Stiletto" (Slim Callaghan)
"The Diamond Scarab" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Disappearing Diamonds" (Slim Callaghan)
"Documentary Evidence" (Slim Callaghan)
"Double Alibi" (Slim Callaghan)
"Duet for Mobsters" (Lemmy Caution)
"Enter Alonzo MacTavish" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Escape for Sandra"
"Fifth Column" (Slim Callaghan)
"From the Neck Up!" (Lemmy Caution)
"Getlin's Perfect Suicide"
"Green in My Eye"
"Greensleeves" (Etienne MacGregor)
"The Guess Comes Off" (Slim Callaghan)
"Gun Moll Blues"
"The Gypsy Warned Me"
"He Walked in Her Sleep" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"He Who Laughs Last" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Heat for Six" (Lemmy Caution)
"Hey...Duchess!" (Lemmy Caution)
"Hey...Sherlock" (Lemmy Caution)
"Honour Among Thieves"
"The House with the Glass Roof" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The House with the Yellow Bricks" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Humour of Huang Chen"
"The Humour of Lo-Chung"
"I Should Know Better"
"In the Bag" (Slim Callaghan)
"In the Hall" (Slim Callaghan)
"It Comes Off Sometimes" (Slim Callaghan)
"It Runs in the Family" (Slim Callaghan)
"Julia Rose Petal" (Etienne MacGregor)
"Lady in Green" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Lady in Love" (Slim Callaghan)
"Lady in Luck" (Julia Herron)
"The Lady in Tears" (Slim Callaghan)
"A Lady of Quality"
"The Last Straw"
"A Life for a Lamp"
"Love and Larceny" (Terence O'Day)
"Love with a Gun"
"Luck...and a Lady" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Lucky Chance"
"The Man with the Eyeglass"
"The Man with the Red Beard"
"The Man with Two Wives" (Slim Callaghan)
"A Matter of Cooperation" (Slim Callaghan)
"A Matter of Luck" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Mauser Pistol" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Missing Bullet" (Slim Callaghan)
"The Missing Rembrandt" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Mouthpiece Talks" (Lemmy Caution)
"The Murder of Alonzo" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Murder with a Twist" (Slim Callaghan)
"The Mystery Blues" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Net of Dr. Klaat"
"Not So Dumb"
"Not-So-Secret Service!" (Julia Herron)
"Of a Delay in the Post"
"Of an Experience of Pierre Duchesne"
"Of Honoria Dove-Mellifleur"
"Of Pastoral Blackmail"
"Of Perfume and Sudden Death"
"Of the Demise of Mr. Evelyn Sout"
"Of the Dream of Erasmus Bellamy"
"Of the King of Tarragona"
"Of the Reclamation of Captain Kidd"
"Of the Vengeance of Hyacinth Jones"
"On the Cards" (Slim Callaghan)
"One Born Every Minute"
"One for the Dutchess"
"One for the Heiress" (Lemmy Caution)
"The Orange Kid"
"The Other Uncle" (Etienne MacGregor)
"The Peacock Fan" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The Perfumed Ghost"
"Poets Can't Take It"
"Portrait of a "G" Man"
"The Return of Klaat" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"The River That Ran Sideways" (Etienne MacGregor)
"A Set-Up for Psychology"
"The Sleeping Car"
"The Sleeping Glass"
"The Sliding Scale" (Etienne MacGregor)
"The Smoking Lamp" (Etienne MacGregor)
"Sob-Stuff" (Lemmy Caution)
"Sold!" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"A Spot of Murder" (Slim Callaghan)
"A Square Deal"
"Sweet Murder at Figg's End"
"The Sweetheart of the Razors" (Etienne MacGregor)
"The Telephone Talks" (Slim Callaghan)
"They Had an Alibi" (Lemmy Caution)
"They Had It Comin'" (Lemmy Caution)
"They Kidnapped Cecelia" (Slim Callaghan)
"This "Other Woman" Stuff" (Julia Herron)
"This Intuition Business" (Carew)
"The Three Grey Men of Mote Hall" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Three Men on Tampa"
"The Tiger at Twelve"
"To Him Who "Waits"" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Too Many Cooks" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"A Tough Spot for Cupid" (Carew)
"Truth Is Never Acceptable"
"The Unhappy Lady" (Alonzo MacTavish)
"Vengeance with a Twist" (Slim Callaghan)
"We Girls Must Hang Together"
"The Weeping Lady"
"The Wine Glass" (Lemmy Caution"
"The Wo Hang Coffin" (Alonzo MacTavish"
"A Woman Scorned"
"The Yellow Kaffir (Etienne MacGregor)
"You Can't Hit a Woman"
"You Can't Trust Duchesses (Slim Callaghan)
"You Can't Trust Husbands"
"You'd Be Surprised" (Julia Herron)
"Your Deal Madame"
This Man Is Dangerous (1936; Lemmy Caution)
Dames Don't Care (1937; Lemmy Caution)
Poison Ivy (1937; Lemmy Caution)
Can Ladies Kill? (1938; Lemmy Caution)
The Urgent Hangman (1938; Slim Callaghan)
Dangerous Curves (1939; Slim Callaghan)
Don't Get Me Wrong (1939; Lemmy Caution)
Another Little Drink (1940)
You Can't Keep the Change (1940; Slim Callaghan)
You'd Be Surprised (1940)
It Couldn't Matter Less (1941; Slim Callaghan)
A Trap for Bellamy (1941)
Your Deal, My Lovely (1941; Lemmy Caution)
Dark Duet (1942)
Never a Dull Moment (1942; Lemmy Caution; Slim Callaghan)
Sorry You've Been Troubled (1942; Slim Callaghan)
Alonzo MacTavish Again (1943; Alonzo MacTavish)
Farewell to the Admiral (1943 )
Premeditated Murder (1943)
The Stars Are Dark (1943; Everard Peter Quayle)
The Unscrupulous Mr. Callaghan (1943; Slim Callaghan)
You Can Always Duck (1943; Lemmy Caution)
Account Rendered (1944)
The Counterspy Murders (1944)
The Dark Street (1944; Everard Peter Quayle)
The London Spy Murders (1944)
They Never Say When (1944; Slim Callaghan)
Escape for Sandra (1945; Everard Peter Quayle)
I'll Say She Does! (1945 ; Lemmy Caution)
Sinister Errand (1945; Michael Kells)
Dark Hero (1946)
The Dark Street Murders (1946)
Time for Caution (1946; Lemmy Caution)
Uneasy Terms (1946; Slim Callaghan)
The Case of the Dark Hero (1947)
Dark Interlude (1947; Shaun O'Mara; Everard Peter Quayle)
Dark Wanton (1948; Everard Peter Quayle)
Try Anything Twice (1948)
The Man Nobody Saw (1949)
One of Those Things (1949)
You Can Call It a Day (1949; Johnny Vallon)
Dark Bahama (1950; Johnny Vallon)
Lady Beware (1950 )
Lady, Behave! (1950; Johnny Vallon)
Set-Up for Murder (1950)
Ladies Won't Wait (1951; Michael Kells)
Mistress Murder (1951)
Dressed to Kill (1952)
I'll Bring Her Back (1952)
Cocktails and the Killer (1957)
Sinister Murders (1957)
Case of the Dark Wanton (1958)
The Terrible Night (1959)
Undressed to Kill (1959)
You Can't Hit a Woman and Other Stories (1937)
Knave Takes Queen (1939; enlarged edition 1950)
Mr. Caution-Mr. Callaghan (1941; Slim Callaghan, Lemmy Caution)
Calling Mr. Callaghan (1943; Slim Callaghan)
The Adventures of Alonzo MacTavish (1943; Alonzo MacTavish)
Love with a Gun and Other Stories (1943)
Making Crime Pay (1944)
A Spot of Murder and Other Stories (1946; Slim Callaghan)
Vengeance with a Twist and Other Stories (1946; Slim Callaghan)
Dance Without Music (1945; Slim Callaghan)
EA Tough Spot for Cupid and Other Stories (1945)
You Can't Trust Duchesses and Other Stories (1945)
Date After Dark and Other Stories (1946; Slim Callaghan)
G Man at the Yard (1946; Lemmy Caution)
He Walked in Her Sleep and Other Stories (1946; Alonzo MacTavish)
The Man with Two Wives and Other Stories (1946; Slim Callaghan)
Lady in Green and Other Stories (1947; Alonzo MacTavish)
A Matter of Luck and Other Stories (1947; Alonzo MacTavish)
The Curiosity of Etienne MacGregor (1947; Etienne MacGregor; AKA The Sweetheart of the Razors)
Cocktail for Cupid and Other Stories (1948)
Cocktail Party and Other Stories (1948)
Fast Work and Other Stories (1948)
Information Received and Other Stories (1948)
The Lady in Tears and Other Stories (1948)
No Ordinary Cheyney (1948)
The Unhappy Lady and Other Stories (1948; Alonzo MacTavish)
Velvet Johnnie and Other Stories (1952)
G Man at the Yard (1953; Lemmy Caution, Slim Callaghan, Alonzo MacTavish)
The Adventures of Julia and Two Other Spy Stories (1954; Julia Herron; AKA Killing Game, You'd Be Surprised)
The Best Stories of Peter Cheyney (1954)
He Walked in Her Sleep (1954; Alonzo MacTavish; AKA MacTavish)
The Mystery Blues and Other Stories (1954)
The Mystery Blues and Other Stories Peter Cheyney (1954; AKA Fast Work)
An extensive bibliography.
Contributed by Bryan Clough, author of Approaching Zero, Cheating at Cards and the upcoming Malignant Moles, the true story of the British fascist parties in the 20's and 30's, which will include several references to Cheyney. Also, thanks to Philip Eagle for some of the info on this page.