Peter Cheyney, and the strange adventure of Lemmy Caution
August 1, 2012 2:29 AM   Subscribe

Peter Cheyney was a prolific author of pulp thrillers, whose tin-eared appropriations of American hard-boiled detective fiction were nevertheless wildly popular in Britain and France in his mid-20th-century heyday. Among his creations were the cynical British detective Slim Callaghan; the debonair Belgian assassin Ernest Guelvada (one of the lead characters in the so-called ‘Dark’ series of spy novels), and the oddly-named, trenchcoat-wearing FBI tough-guy Lemmy Caution, played on-screen in a series of French movies by the American-born actor & singer Eddie Constantine, a role he would later reprise to striking effect in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 movie Alphaville.
posted by misteraitch (13 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The Lemmy Caution stories read like a parody of American pulp, but they're not parody. I had no idea exactly how popular Cheney's books were in Europe. They're interesting to me because they present a view of American culture culled entirely from our movies and pulp fiction repackaged for people whose main exposure to American culture is those same movies. The resulting product turns the corniness of hard boiled fiction up to 11.

Anyway, he makes Mickey Spillane seem like Proust, which is an accomplishment of sorts, I suppose.
posted by dortmunder at 5:57 AM on August 1, 2012

According to the third link, Cheyney seems to have been a lovely person:

According to Mosley, Cheyney was particularly good at the job of handling those who disrupted their meetings.
posted by Skeptic at 7:18 AM on August 1, 2012

If you can find an English sub or dub of Eddie Constantine's Lemmy Caution movies (the original ones, that is, not the later Alphaville), they're a lot of fun and well worth buying. As dortmunder said, they're so exaggerated as to be almost parody, somewhat like non-Daniel Craig James Bond movies.
posted by unreason at 7:53 AM on August 1, 2012

Ah! A candidate for August Best Post Contest!
posted by growabrain at 7:53 AM on August 1, 2012

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 movie Alphaville

The narration . . . the narration . . .
posted by Herodios at 8:22 AM on August 1, 2012

Anyway, he makes Mickey Spillane seem like Proust, which is an accomplishment of sorts, I suppose.

In the same way that bad books can make good movies, bad books can get away with a lot if they pass through translation. And the French, they do love them some good noire.
posted by BWA at 8:31 AM on August 1, 2012

I thought I was losing my mind the first time I read a Lemmy Caution book, because it was so fucking weird the way it almost made sense.

Jean Dujardin's OSS 117 movies are amazing because they capture the surrealism of these knock-off works (OSS 117 was the French James Bond) to hilarious effect.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:04 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jean Dujardin's OSS 117 movies are amazing because they capture the surrealism of these knock-off works (OSS 117 was the French James Bond) to hilarious effect.

Though he does technically predate Bond.
posted by Amanojaku at 9:22 AM on August 1, 2012

Yes, but Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath got a lot Bond-ier after Bond. Before that, he was more of a Buchan/Wallace type of spy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:29 AM on August 1, 2012

Man, I really love Alphaville.
posted by brundlefly at 10:51 AM on August 1, 2012

Lemmy Caution

Worst celebrity perfume ever.
posted by ormondsacker at 11:14 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

The sole biography of Cheyney, Peter Cheyney, Prince of Hokum, points out that, for all the superficial sexiness of the books (pneumatic blondes in low-cut dresses, etc) the sex scenes are weirdly unconvincing, e.g. this totally unsexy seduction scene from Dangerous Curves:
Callaghan went back to the sitting-room.
'What were we talkin' about?' he said.
She looked at him demurely.
'We were talking about quotations .. the one under discussion was about love being akin to hatred.'
'Oh yes,' said Callaghan. 'Well, I've got a theory ..' He paused, his glass halfway to his mouth. 'Would it bore you to hear it?' he queried.
'Not at all, Mr Callaghan,' she said. 'Mr Selby, who -- as you pointed out when we were having our little discussion, just after you put Jelks hors de combat -- has more experience in his little finger than I have in what you were pleased to call 'the entire area of my nice figure' -- I'm glad you think it nice -- well, Mr Selby said that you were a person of rather extraordinary experience, that you were very, very deep, and that it was well worth while to listen to you. I should be very glad to hear an exposition from you on the 'love is akin to hate' theory.'
Callaghan looked at her. Her eyes were twinkling. He was about to speak when the house telephone in the bedroom rang. He asked to be excused ..
James Bond it ain't. In fact, unless I'm much mistaken (and I don't think I am; 'deeply attached to his mother' can only mean one thing in a book of this date), the biography even hints that Cheyney was a repressed homosexual.
posted by verstegan at 8:48 AM on August 2, 2012

Skeptic—indeed he seems to have been an enthusiastic and thuggish proto-fascist who was also affected, vain & an inveterate liar. On the other hand, he didn’t follow Mosley from the New Party to the BUF in ’32, and his far-rightward leanings didn’t prevent him from being cheerfully anti-Nazi come wartime.

verstegan—that’s interesting: none of the on-line sources I looked at picked up that angle, and while it would help explain a few things about him, I can’t help wondering why, if he was deep in the closet, he went to the trouble of marrying three times. The unsexiness of his writing notwithstanding, a few commentators have seen Cheney’s ‘Dark’ novels (and in particular the figure of Ernest Guelvada) as prefiguring some aspects of the Bond stories.

Another influence I have seen alleged (but not substantiated) is that of Slim Callaghan as a possible model for the noir thriller episodes in Dennis Potter’s ‘Singing Detective.’
posted by misteraitch at 1:34 AM on August 3, 2012

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