“Your remarks about Peter Cheyney amused me, especially as I have just received a batch of five of his books from the Penguin people in England. One of them, Dark Duet, seems to me damn good...”
Raymond Chandler, October 14, 1949, to: James Sandoe, Raymond Chandler Speaking, University of California Press

The Dark books (including Sinister Errand) are generally recognised as Peter Cheyney’s best work. The eight books, published by William Collins, are a loose series based around the British counter-espionage service during and after the Second World War...
1942 1943 1944 1945
1946 1947 1948 1950
The war-time books have clear-cut – if ruthless – heroes and villainous under-cover Nazis. In the stories respect is given to the strong, with utter disdain heaped on the cowardly and disloyal, but of course they all get their deserved ends. Post-war, the lines are not quite so clear: Dark Interlude begins with a hero from a previous book as a desperate drunk in a small French town, and the final book, Dark Wanton, centres around a British agent gone bad, after he is no longer needed by the secret service. Other characters have a strong sense of displacement, reflecting the feelings many of the ex-serviemen must have had at that time.

There is a cast of regular Dark characters, notably Michael Kane, Johnny Vallon, Shaun O’Mara and the wonderful Free-Belgian Ernest Guelvada. But the most interesting character is that of the emigmatic director of operations, Mr Peter Everard Quayle – even in name he is the barely disguised author himself:

  • ... He was wearing crimson silk pyjamas and his hands were folded behind his head, which was almost entirely bald except for a fringe of hair, giving him the appearance of a tonsured monk.

    ... he was very tall; he moved easily and quickly. His face was round, intelligent, and could look weak or strong as he willed. Quayle was a character. He had done all sorts of things ... Yet if you asked him to do something else, to turn his life into a quiet routine set in some backwater where days flowed easily by, he would have refused. He was fascinated by the web in which he was a central point; fascinated by seeing the things he wanted to happen happen; in watching the wheels go round.

  • Quayle was what might be described as a very tough egg. Yet he had a house just outside London, a wife who was devoted to him ... the background of a normal upper-middle class Englishman who was nearly fifty years of age ... who was like so many of his type that one sees about the streets. Yet he was none of these things.
    ... a man at whose bidding strange things happened in many parts of the world; a man who ordered death and hated it; a man who pulled strings and made puppets dance.
  • (from The Stars are Dark and The Dark Street)
Quayle does not appear in person a great deal, but is felt by his operatives as an omni-present guiding force, aware of their every action before the characters themselves.

Peter Cheyney died in 1951 and Ian Fleming’s James Bond “was born” on 15 January 1952 in Casino Royale. The Dark agents are all physically very attractive (although not always in a conventional way) ruthless – both in love and war – and hard-drinkers. With the exception of Dark Bahama, all the Dark books are set close to home, and even in the Caribbean heat the motivations and actions of the characters are on a realistic level – there are no cat-stroking mad-men plotting to take over the world in a Cheyney story.

As the series progresses, the story lines become more sophisticated, the writing less mannered and the characters fuller, better drawn. These eight books clearly show how Cheyeny’s style was developing up to his untimely death at the age of fifty five. New Cheyney readers would find the latter Dark books a perfect starting point.

click on the covers above for images of other editions and texts from the cover blurbs <top>