This was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Peter Cheyney is probably best known for his hard-boiled detective novels starring Lemmy Caution, but Dark Wanton (1948) is part of his ‘dark’ series of spy novels. His brief foray into espionage fiction was to be fairly influential. Many writers, such as Ian Fleming and Len Deighton, would go on to emulate the unsentimental intelligence of his protagonists, and the cleverly tangled plotlines. Indeed, Dark Wanton is tinged with a degree of ‘dirtiness’ that you often see in Cold War spy thrillers.
Dark Wanton is very typical of British novels written during the 1940s and into the early 1950s in that it somewhat grudgingly admires women with a bit of chutzpah and does everything it can to convince the British reader than Britain is still a mighty force to be reckoned with. It follows the post-war British Secret Service on the chase for two missing documents, which hold the names of unknown war criminals. Though we never see the contents of either of these documents (in fact, we never see the real documents at all), we get a glimpse of what it must have been like for those agents who were forced to settle into ‘normal’ life after the action of the Second World War, and the temptations that must have haunted them.
Cheyney does quite a marvellous job of weaving a myriad double-crosses schemes and tying them up both realistically (in the context of the world of the novel) and artfully. In this respect, it’s a remarkable examination of performance and the experience of performing. But this I mean every character plays their role rather than is their role. Facades for each character are always already in place and always already known by the other characters.
The other characters expect Antoinette Brown to be a vaguely icy virginal figure and always unruffledly shocked at impropriety. Thus Antoinette acts like a vaguely icy virginal figure and always unruffledly shocked at impropriety, even when she is caught in the act of breaking into one of the leading male protagonists’ flat. Aurora Francis is expected to be curious about men and thus able to be trapped by her curiosity, and so she allows herself to be seen as curious about men and thus trapped by her curiosity.
Academically speaking, the duplicity of the narrative and the contrivance of how each character is maneuvered is fascinating. The (omniscient, anonymous) narrator is very honest about these various levels of deceit. The reader is always aware that events are being staged rather than happening organically; equally, the reader is always aware that characters are performing their part and so react as their part would react rather than as they would themselves. They allow themselves to act so and allow themselves to be acted upon. It’s all a great game of open pretense.
One of the more inviting observations Cheyney allows his protagonists to make is that of the double double cross:
To think of what the other man is going to do. Even to allow for his thinking that you knew what he was going to do and then, deliberately, to allow for his doing the opposite. The double double-cross used a million times in the war by ‘double agents’ — those supreme beings who worked on two sides but gave loyalty to only one side.
What all of this ends up achieving, at least in terms of the relationship between the reader and Cheyney himself, is a very interesting variant of the double double-cross. With everything directed, and the direction so transparent, escapism is virtually impossible. Even the excruciatingly Hollywood dialogue ends up highlighting just how ‘staged’ it all is. In this respect, with the artifice of the story ever exposed, even the grubbiness of its subject feels glossed over. The reader pretty well knows what the outcome of the story is yet must pretend to be surprised when the denouement is flawlessly presented at the end. Loyalty, then, is ultimately won by the author, but (rather like the other characters he’s been manipulating) the reader resents rather than admires him for it.