Used books, out-of-print books, rare books at Biblio

September 25, 2007

Lemmy Caution, Slim Callaghan? No. Peter Cheyney!

Peter Cheyney was 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According to Who's Who, he had been 'seriously wounded', but this was not a view shared by the medical board which soon rescinded his pension.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.

Cheyney stayed involved with political work and he continued with his mixture of private eye work - both fact and detective 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.

Taken from an article by Brian Clough & Philip Eagle.

No comments: