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Monday, 30 May 2016

Writing – analysing a writer’s work-1

Many years ago, when I embarked on writing fiction, I studied a good number of novels in an attempt to see how they worked – paragraph structure, dialogue, scene changes, pace, characterisation, etc. It’s a useful exercise for beginners.

I’m going to post the occasional analysis in this blog, though it’s a little invidious, analysing a writer with only one sample of his (or her) work, but here goes.

The Writer: Peter Cheyney
The Work: It Couldn’t Matter Less, 1941 (reviewed in my blog here)

In his day, Cheyney was very popular indeed, his books selling two million a year, and towards the end of his life even five million. He adopted a spare, sometimes cynical yet humorous style, and employed a secretary to write down his dictation, very much in the manner of Barbara Cartland.

Naturally, tastes have changed since Cheney was famous. Yet fans of crime fiction will still derive enjoyment from his tales that involved hard-bitten detectives and beautiful dames, decidedly influenced by the American school of crime writers.

Nowadays, a few of the things we look out for in editing clearly didn’t apply then. Notably, word-repetition on the same page, paragraph or even sentence. And people ‘begin to walk’, ‘began to think’… all the time, it seems.

The norm was for fresh speech always to begin on a new line/new paragraph. This helps to fill the pages, though it can become stilted. For example:

            Callaghan went to the sideboard and poured out some bourbon. He came back with the glass in his hand. He said:
            ‘I’d like to hear all about it. I’m very interested.’
            She threw him a quick glance. She said:
            ‘I’m not quite certain as to whether you’re taking me absolutely seriously…’
            She drank some champagne. She said:
            ‘…’ and so on.

Of course it’s out of context; we’re watching a black and white movie and Cheyney has to move the characters in the set. 
            Even so, the phrase ‘in his hand’ is doubtless superfluous – where else would he hold the glass?
            Can a glance be anything but quick?
            These are minor quibbles.
            Throughout, even when there are only two individuals in the scene, there’s an over-emphasis on ‘he said’/’she said’, when it should be obvious who is speaking.
            Now, the action can be linked to the speech, dropping the ‘she said’, thus: She threw him a sharp glance. ‘I’m not quite certain as to whether you’re taking me absolutely seriously…’

            To the modern editing eye, these are weaknesses in style. Yet at the time, they doubtless comprised ‘the style’ for the period. Cheyney invariably produced two books a year for an eager readership that was more interested in story than style. Quite right, too, and let us not forget it: the story is the thing.
            As this is the fourth in the Slim Callaghan series of novels, Callaghan reminiscences about the other women in his life from previous cases – which is a neat touch, showing that his adventures are linear and not divorced from his reality, unlike some adventurers who never change or reflect on past cases.
            One of the attractions of Cheyney’s writing is doubtless his wit. After a heavy bout of drinking that necessitates him taking a couple of aspirin tablets, he goes off whistling a tune, ‘It Was Good While It Lasted.’ Like James Bond after him, Callaghan was a prodigious drinker, imbibing liquor day and night, at all hours, and driving a Jaguar as well. (The roads were less cluttered then.)

‘Callaghan came to the conclusion that he was drinking too much whisky. He ordered a large Bacardi.’ (p42)

            And Callaghan’s a chain smoker, as well. (Publishers risk the ire of do-gooders – those folk who want to rewrite history to conform to their modern prejudices - if they re-publish these books in an unexpurgated edition! I jest: many of his books are available as e-books, and some paperbacks can be had for reasonable prices.)

            Callaghan turned and flicked his cigarette into the fireplace. He said:
            ‘I always mean it. When I kiss a woman I always mean it like hell. Let me show you…’
            He showed her. [End of chapter 7]

            No sex is depicted, though suggested, and there’s plenty of flirting and seduction.
            Callaghan’s sidekick is a Yank called Nikolls, and he’s always relating episodes from his past, usually involving a woman:

‘She’s the sorta dame who falls for every guy who makes a pass at her. She oughta be called Dandruff. She’s always fallin’ on some guy’s collar.’ Another conquest from Chicago: ‘She was sorta fond of love. In fact I christened that dame Muscles because she was in every guy’s arms…’
            Private detectives like Callaghan have a code, despite the sleaze they swim in. ‘People like Lionel are little people. They love in a small way and hate in a little way. Most murderers are mean.’ (p151)
            Then more than now, I suspect, people were keen on catchphrases, and Cheyney was no exception, attempting to create one for the book title:

            Gringall cocked an eyebrow.
            ‘That’s a new one,’ he said. ‘I never heard that one before… “It Couldn’t Matter Less”… But then you know all the catchphrases.’ (p106)

            And he used this:

            ‘Thank you for nothing,’ said Callaghan. ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ (p232)

            Which reminds me of the phrase ‘Be seeing you’ employed often in The Prisoner original TV series. ‘I’ll be seeing you’ was an old phrase by the time of this book, being a song title for the Broadway musical Right This Way, 1938.

You read his books for the story, the wit and the period touches.
I’d be tempted to read another Cheyney novel, maybe one of his ‘Dark’ series of espionage novels (1942-1950).

Cheyney died in 1951, aged 55.

I recommend viewing the dedicated website for more information, and for old Cheyney book cover art:


Jo Walpole said...

An interesting read and viewpoint. I've never had the patience to sit down and dissect another author's writing more than mentally editing and having 'ah' moments when I read. I'm glad you picked up on the 'quick glance'. It's a pet hate of mine. However, styles change and seeing how writing has moved on through time is a constant source of fascination. However writing evolves it will always be a pleasure to read classics, the same way it's nice to see an old black and white film and notice the differences between now and then.

Nik Morton said...

I agree, Jo. It shouldn't be a case of inferior/superior attitudes. I suppose colourising old black and white movies is the equivalent of updating a classic, which has been done more than once! Bottom line, those stories (book and film) entertained millions, usually, and that's something we all want to aim for (I wish!)