Saturday, 26 November 2011
I have always argued that to get under the skin of a past culture you have to read its pulp and dreams. All the biographies, political histories and the scholarly works derived from them will tell you the view from above, the sanitised self-exculpatory icing on a dark and fruity cake.
Within the whitened sepulchre lived those who left few written accounts, and the letters and diaries that have been unearthed are subject to the same conscious or unconscious self-censorship.
No, it is in the books they read, and later, the films they saw, that reveal with blistering accuracy the fears, fantasies and unvarnished prejudices of an age.
Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer brilliantly conjure up the paranoid fears of a Britain caught between wars; a sense of skating on dangerously thin ice in a world full of shadows.
Peter Cheyney, too, caught the zeitgeist of an age, reaching his peak in his ‘Dark Series’ that shows what a nation with its back to the wall wanted to believe: that its secret agents, though brutal and flawed were the best in the world and keeping the shadows at bay.
Peter Cheyney wrote thirty five novels and over 150 short stories in the space of fifteen years between 1936 and 1951 when he died aged fifty-five. Some writers have little or no literary merit but ride a short-lived wave. Cheyney’s books would never be accused of literary worth but his wave was more substantial and lasted longer than most. His books portray a world that has long gone, along with the dreams and prejudices of those he wrote for.
It is a world of smoky bars and clubs, stylish apartments, country houses, and more mean and squalid streets. It was also an age of austerity, during the war and in the years immediately after.
Aspiring writers, check out this link and weep
Cheyney may have been subliminally influenced by the fact that his mother lived above the corset shop she owned, or perhaps by the fact that, in 1923, he briefly became involved in a dress making company. His brother, Stanley, stuck at it and earned some success in the field of haute couture, and this is reflected in every novel Cheyney wrote.
When ever a character is introduced for the first time, for the second time and for every time after that, minute attention is paid to what they’re wearing. The action stops until we know almost down to their underwear how the character is dressed. Freud or a cynic might wonder whether Cheyney enjoyed dressing up dolls as a child, but I suspect the answer was more rational. Not only did it add to his word-count, it also pandered to the aspirations of a readership deprived of luxury. In an age before Dynasty and Dallas, big hair, and glossy lipstick, padded shoulders, his books did the trick. Murder and retail therapy.
In ‘You Can Call It A Day, (1949) Johnny Vallon:
‘He wore a dark blue, double-breasted suit that had been cut by a good tailor, a cream shirt, a blue tie.’ (It continues) .....is observing Querida Gale:
‘She had what it takes in a very big way, Vallon decided. She was wearing a navy blue suit with a skirt fitting so well it looked as if it had been painted on her. Under her coat was a blouse that came out of France – a fine hand-made georgette in a faint lemon colour with hand sewn tucks. Her shoes were hand-made and the seams of her stockings were dead straight up the back of her calf.’ Most men would be hard pressed to recall in detail what their wife is wearing but this is a hard-boiled private eye who drinks whisky before breakfast, smokes for England and who, unbelievably, even recognises the name of her perfume.
The Fashion show continues:
'Mrs Gale was standing in front of the fireplace. She wore a superbly cut black velvet dinner gown with a square cut neck; a dog collar of pearls. There were two diamond clips at her neck. Vallon looked at her with approval from the top of her well coiffured head to her four inch-heeled sequin embroidered shoes.
Vallon helped himself to a whisky and soda'
The formula often ends with Vallon, or his equivalent in other books, dampening desire with a drink.
(Evangeline Roberta Trickett ) 'was sitting at the dressing table doing things to her mouth with a lipstick. She wore black lace underclothes, with a gold wrap, worked with black Chinese dragons, over them. She wore the sheerest silk stockings and black satin pumps spangled with gold stars. Miss Trickett was a ‘looker’ and knew it. Vallon poured out a drink…'
Sometimes the ritual has purpose, is insightful and acute.
'A girl came into the bar and sat on the high stool next to him. He looked at her casually. She was pretty and had a good figure. Her coat and skirt were well cut – even if the skirt was a trifle short. Her stockings were sheer and her patent pumps had been expensive. They had been. Now, he noticed there was a slight inclination on the part of the sole of the left shoe to part company with the upper. You could only notice this when she was sitting, as she sat now, with one foot tilted on the bar-rail at an angle.'
More often it reads like a fashion magazine inhabited by murderous models:
Kiernan stood in the doorway. He wore a short leather jacket with a dark fur collar. A tweed cap was pulled over one eye. A cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth. He was smiling. (Dark Wanton 1948 1946)
'She stood motionless, one hand resting on the bottom of the balustrade, the other hanging by her side. She wore a long black velvet skirt with a white georgette blouse. The ruffles about her neck and the full sleeves at her wrists were caught with black velvet ribbons. One small crepe-de- Chine shod foot tapped impatiently on the floor. (Uneasy Terms 1946) As you can see, it would be quite easy to write a whole new novel from a fashion mash-up. Women could read his novels for fashion tips and, like the men who read them in bedsits or on the battle fields of France, indulge in mild eroticism.
There is so much more, but this is long enough. Too long. I’m sorry. Perhaps a posting some time on Cheyney and women.