Monday, 19 September 2016

Is Ian Fleming in the Cheyney class?

Peter Cheyney was a British author of espionage stories and American-style hard-boiled detective fiction. Largely forgotten and unread today, he enjoyed huge success between the 1930s and 1950s, when his work was published; according to Fergus Fleming, Cheyney sold over 1,500,000 copies of his books in 1946. It is little wonder, then, that in the early days of his Bond career, Ian Fleming aspired to what he termed 'the Cheyney class', wishing to emulate Cheyney's success and appeal.

We learn this from the superb collection of Ian Fleming's letters, edited by his nephew Fergus and published last year by Bloomsbury. Fleming's aspiration is revealed in a letter to Jonathan Cape in 1953 concerning Live and Let Die. By the time of From Russia, with Love, published in 1957, Fleming's view of Cheyney had changed. In a letter to Wren Howard of Jonathan Cape, Fleming wrote that a proposed comic strip for the Express risked his work descending 'into the Cheyney class'. What was once emulated for its style and popularity was now regarded as inferior and low-brow.

Fleming's later view of Cheyney seems to have continued unchanged for the remainder of his Bond career. It is telling that in interviews given in the early 1960s, Fleming listed, among others, Chandler, Hammett and Oppenheim as influences, but there is no mention of Cheyney. Reading Peter Cheyney now, it is not difficult to understand why Cheyney has not stood the test of time and why Fleming thought his work a cut above the Cheyney class.

Peter Cheyney's 1942 novel, Never a Dull Moment, one of a number of books that feature FBI detective Lemmy Caution, is a case in point. The narrative takes place in England during the Second World War (Cheyney's novels have contemporary settings). Caution is on leave in Scotland, but is requested by the FBI to go to London and investigate the disappearance of an American woman, Julia Wayles. In the course of his enquiries, he discovers a gang of American gangsters working in England for the Germans as a fifth column.

The novel is for the most part exciting and fast-paced, and superficially there are similarities with the Bond novels. The names of Cheyney's femme fatales, such as Dodo Malendas, are as exotic-sounding as those of Fleming's heroines. Caution is tough with the villains and attractive to women, and he'd more than match Bond in his alcohol consumption. We even get a 'Caution, Lemmy Caution' when Caution introduces himself to another character.

As with the Philip Marlowe novels, the Lemmy Caution novels are written in the first-person. Some of the lines come close to Chandler quality (“He lets go a gasp like a steam whistle. I take advantage of the pause in hostilities to punch him in the belly hard.”), but some of the scenes and descriptions are repetitive, and I found that the narrative, rendered in a vernacular style, became tedious to read after a while. To the modern reader, the book might best be regarded as sub-Chandler or, more generally, a parody of a hard-boiled thriller.

Cheyney's espionage writing is rather more conventional. For example, his short story, 'The Double Double-Cross' is a nice little tale about a plan to bring a halt to the activities of the seductive Roanne Lucrezia Loranoff, a  Russian aristocrat, émigrée and spy. The story sits comfortably alongside any spy story of the time, but in no obvious sense could it be considered a forerunner of Bond.

That said, another of Cheyney's espionage stories is Dark Duet (1942), which Raymond Chandler considered to be Cheyney's one good book, telling Ian Fleming so in a letter in 1955. One of the characters in the book is called Hildebrand. Three years after Chandler's letter, Hildebrand would crop up again in the title of one of Fleming's short stories.

So is Ian Fleming in or out of the Cheyney class? In my view, definitely out, being some distance above it. But that is not to say that Peter Cheyney doesn't deserve to be read. While his Lemmy Caution novels can be hard-going to the modern reader, Cheyney's espionage stories are a better read and earn their place in the development of spy fiction.

Fleming, F (ed.), 2015 The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming's James Bond Letters, Bloomsbury

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