By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Peter Cheyney: Callaghan Cheynsmokes!

Once upon a time, say 50 to 100 years ago (plus or minus 20 or 30 years, subject to correction either way!), in the golden age of tobacco, smoking was an eminently fashionable phenomenon all over the world. It was cultivated as a fine art in motion pictures everywhere, showing the most glamorous heros and heroines indulging in constant smoking.

Literature too had a way of glorifying smoking, though not to the same extent as cinema. And once in a while you came across a novel which had as great an obsession with smoking as any Hollywood movie starring Humphrey Bogart or Marlene Dietrich.

I have a battered copy of a lively detective novel written by the master of suspense Peter Cheyney, in which cigarettes figure in 50 per cent of the pages. Just look at the following extracts from the first two chapters: -- in 14 out of the first 28 pages the author raves about smoking and cigarettes, and that proportion is more or less maintained throughout the book:-

The Urgent Hangman by Peter Cheyney

Chapter 1

Callaghan turned the corner into Chancery Lane. A gust of cold wind met him, blowing back the flaps of his raincoat, sending the rain through his threadbare trouser legs. He was five feet ten and thin. He had seven pence half penny and a heavy smoker's cough... The rain had already soaked the brim of his soft black hat and made a damp ridge round his forehead... He felt in his raincoat pocket for the packet of Player's, produced it, found it empty, threw it away. [page 7]

She said: 'Do you mind if I smoke?' He nodded... She took a thin case out of her handbag and his mouth watered when he saw that they were Player's. He wondered if she would offer him one. When he lit a match for her and walked round the desk to light the cigarette, she laid the opened case on the desk, indicating that it was at his disposal. Callaghan took one and was glad of it. He hadn't smoked for seven hours. [p. 12]

Callaghan blew a smoke ring carefully. He was looking out of the window, thinking... 'All right,' he said. 'All right, I'm takin' this case. Maybe you will tell me who my client is?'.... She took another cigarette and lit it with a gold lighter. 'Does it matter?' she said. [pp. 14/15]

Callaghan closed the street door behind him, walked along into Chancery Lane, turned left and strolled into Holborn. At the coffee shop he remembered his hunger, bought two cheese cakes and two cups of coffee. He ate and drank and ordered three packets of Player's cigarettes. He registered a mental note to get some new shoes. [p. 17]

He turned down Fleet Street and walked to the office of the Morning Echo. He sent a slip up for Mr. Jengel... Five minutes afterwards Jengel [the Echo crime reporter] came down... Callaghan held out a cigarette... Jengel lit the cigarette... Then he looked oddly at Callaghan. [p. 18]

Callaghan lit another cigarette from the stub of the last one... He held the cigarettes out to Jengel. 'Listen, Mike,' he said, 'you're in with the right boys. You find out where they've put the body...' [p. 19]

Callaghan went into the call box outside the Law Courts... He rang a number. At the other end he could hear the ringing tone jangling regularly. He waited... Holding the receiver with one hand, he managed to extract another cigarette. He found a vesta in his waistcoat pocket and struck it against the wall. Her voice came through. [p. 20]

Chapter 2

It was one o'clock. Callaghan sat back in his office chair, his feet on the desk, the inevitable cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth... The idea intrigued him. He grinned when he thought of it... He stubbed out the cigarette, got up, walked into the outer office. He put a piece of paper in the typewriter and wrote a note... [p. 21]

He read this effort through, grinned sardonically at the phrasing, sealed it up and addressed it. He put it into his pocket to post... He lit another cigarette. The telephone rang. It was Jengel... [p. 22]

He [Jengel] gulped. 'Look, Slim,' he said urgently, 'I don't know what you're at, but for the love of Mike go easy and don't get me mixed up in any of your stuff...' 'Why don't you take it easy?' growled Callaghan, 'who's hurtin' you?... Good night, I'll be seein' you.' He hung up. He stubbed out his cigarette and lit a fresh one. Then he opened the desk drawer and took a pair of grey fabric gloves and a pocket knife. He put on his raincoat, put the gloves and the knife in the pocket, picked up his hat and went downstairs. [p. 23]

Callaghan closed the door behind him and followed Darkie into the sitting room. He sat down in a rickety chair, produced a packet of Player's and offered one. Darkie took it and struck a match. Recovered from his first surprise, he now took the nocturnal visit as a matter of course. [p. 25]

Callaghan drew the smoke down into his lungs and sent it out artistically through one nostril... 'Look, Darkie,' he said, 'Have you done anything yet?'... [p. 26]

Callaghan walked into the Gray's Inn Road, picked up a crawling cab and told the man to drive to the top of Chancery Lane. From there he walked to the office. Arrived, he closed the street door behind him, locked it, and began to walk up the stairs. He stopped once or twice on the way up because his cough troubled him -- a cough the result of a hundred cigarettes a day. Inside his own room he switched on the desk light and slumped into his chair behind the desk. He threw his hat in the corner, lit a fresh cigarette, opened the bottom drawer and drained the last remnants from the rye bottle. [p. 27]

(to be continued)