Monday, August 23, 2010

Série Noire Project #1: Peter Cheyney's Poison Ivy (1937/1945)

This is part of an occasional series concerning the question, “What is noir?” It assumes that you have read the previous parts of the series:

Notes Toward a Definition of Noir

Série Noire Project: Introduction

Série Noire Project #1: Peter Cheyney's Poison Ivy (1937/1945)

In analyzing the nature of the early Série Noire, some critics cherry-pick the writers who are the most familiar to them and who are also (not coincidentally) held in the highest regard today: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. But to claim that these writers, taken alone, are representative of the early Série Noire is a distortion born of wishful thinking. In fact, Marcel Duhamel, the founder of the Série Noire, chose to include many novels that are held in low regard today, including the first novel in the series: Peter Cheyney’s
Poison Ivy (originally published in 1937; published in the Série Noire in 1945).

Poison Ivy was the second novel by the British writer Cheyney; like his first novel, This Man Is Dangerous (1936), it is narrated by American G-man Lemmy Caution. Native speakers of English—and especially American native speakers of English—will likely find Lemmy Caution’s narrative voice laughable, and this comedy, whether intentional or not, may well dominate their reading experiences. The opening paragraph of the first chapter establishes Caution’s voice:

Was I pleased or was I? I’m tellin’ you that kickin’ around Alliance Nebraska never pleased me any; more especially when I say that I have been rusticatin’ in this dump so that I am already beginnin’ to think I am growing hay in my hair. But I reckon that the ways of the main “G” office is nobody’s business, an’ I have also got an idea at the back of my head that they have kept me kickin’ around this spot all this time so that the bezuzus I started over the Miranda van Zelden case could die down. (9)
This is so far from a realistic portrayal of any American idiom that it sounds like rocks in a blender. But in trying to understand the novel’s inclusion in the Série Noire, the reaction of an American reader is beside the point. Caution’s voice would have been perceived differently by Cheyney’s British audience, and it would have been perceived even more differently by the Frenchman Duhamel. Duhamel, of course, is our focus: What did he see in Poison Ivy that led him to label it noir?

Significantly, Duhamel’s statement describing the Série Noire says nothing about the importance of language or idiom. Rather, the Série Noire emphasizes character as revealed through action: “What remains is action, anxiety, beatings, massacres—violence in every evil shape and form. As in good films, characters reveal their souls through action, and readers fond of introspective literature will be left to turn backflips.” Therefore, even if Duhamel had been aware of Cheyney’s shortcomings as a stylist, he may not have cared much, given both the Série Noire’s emphasis on action and the dampening of Caution’s voice in translation. (How do you say “bezuzus” in French? According to Duhamel’s translation, you say “le chambard.”)

In Making Crime Pay (1944), Cheyney describes his method of storytelling as “realistic” rather than “intellectual” (20). This distinction runs parallel to Duhamel’s emphasis on action over introspection. Cheyney says that he was drawn to the possibilities of “realistic” fiction circa 1935 by British gangster films and Paul Cain’s Fast One, an American novel published in 1932. (It is amusing to note that Cheyney wrote his nonfiction with as much care as his fiction; he gets both author and title wrong, citing A Fast One by James Cain.) The main lesson that Cheyney seems to have learned from Fast One is velocity of plot. The violence comes quickly and keeps coming, regardless of whether the narrative makes sense. In a similar vein, Cornell Woolrich later argued that anything is acceptable in a plot provided that it increases narrative tension. According to Woolrich, if a story is becoming ever more suspenseful, then the writer is doing his job even if the plot, when closely examined, is gibberish. But in Paul Cain and Peter Cheyney, suspense hardly seems the goal. Their plots simply go until they have reached the necessary word count, and then they stop with the best sense of closure they can manage. Their plot points are discrete events that provide little cumulative drama.

Poison Ivy’s action for the sake of action is consistent with Duhamel’s understanding of noir, as he does not mention suspense as one of the Série Noire’s characteristics. Instead, he emphasizes that these novels are unsettling: “Briefly, our goal is simple: to stop you from sleeping.” The key to this goal, as Duhamel describes it, is the portrayal of a world without moral center. There will be violent crime, but there may not be good-guy cops or likeable detectives to ensure that justice is served—which, of course, brings us to Lemmy Caution and the fact that Poison Ivy is the second of ten Caution novels.

The idea of a detective-hero who appears in a series of novels is antithetical to most definitions of noir. If there is a detective who solves the case and lives to detect another day, then how dark can the novel be? Thus, we find Allan Guthrie, in introducing his personal list of the top 200 noir novels, explaining his definition of noir in only one way: He “rules out most detective fiction—unless the detectives are victims, crooks, lunatics or are generally shafted in some major way.” Duhamel, in describing the Série Noire, seems somewhat sympathetic to Guthrie’s point of view, commenting that readers “will see cops more corrupt than the criminals they chase.” However, when he goes on to say that a “sympathetic detective will not always solve the mystery,” he implies that a “sympathetic detective” will sometimes “solve the mystery,” despite the fact that Série Noire “is a world of amorality.” In novels featuring sympathetic detectives, presumably there are other elements that make the world amoral.

At the beginning of Poison Ivy, Caution, who has been working in Alliance, Nebraska, is summoned to New York. The FBI believes that someone may be planning to hijack a shipment of gold headed from New York to Southampton, England, and they want Caution on the case because he is unknown to local criminals. His method of investigation is to provoke the mob, to survive the resulting violence, and to see what he learns as a result. He explains, “Now I have always had an old-fashioned idea that if you are tryin’ to find somethin’ out a great thing to do is to start as much trouble as you can . . .” (64). A predictable result of this method is that Caution finds himself in serious trouble on several occasions, but, like the hero of a Saturday matinee serial, he always finds a way to escape. In one instance, Caution confirms that a character is against him by intentionally walking into an ambush. This gives him an important piece of information, but it places him in a situation that he has no realistic chance of surviving (though, of course, he does—“I have always found that you gotta take a chance,” he later explains [182]).

Where, then, is the darkness of Poison Ivy? Is it amoral? Will it keep readers from sleeping? To begin, its villains are certainly immoral. Not only do they commit murders and other acts of violence in the name of greed, but the novel’s chief villain kills because he “[gets] a kick out of it” (111). But there are very few detective novels, noir or otherwise, that do not have an immoral villain. Thus, what makes Poison Ivy a candidate for noir is the immoral streak in detective-hero Lemmy Caution, which weakens his ability to give the novel a moral center. Caution throws punches first and asks questions later. We first see this when he punches a man who has been following him. Caution says, “I know that a war is about to start any minute now an’ I reckon that I might as well be the guy who starts it . . .” (48). Later, after Caution has won a fight, he hits his opponent when he is down: “He goes down with a wallop an’ I pick him up with my left hand an’ smack him down with my right again just for luck because these mobsters . . . are just a pain in the neck to me anyway” (55).

Furthermore, Caution will do immoral things to get information: He promises to frame two gangsters for murder if they refuse to talk to him (57). Then, when wants to keep them quiet, he has them arrested with the promise that they will be let go after two weeks—unless, of course, they talk, in which case he will frame them for something (62-63, 64). Caution realizes that not everyone approves of his tactics:

[S]ome of my methods are inclined to be a bit tough, an’ I have got an idea that these English coppers are not so pleased with any strong-arm stuff, but I have found very often that the best way to make some guy talk quick an’ plenty is to smack him down first of all an’ then start gettin’ nice with him afterwards. All the guys who don’t believe in force are the guys who cause all the trouble in the long run because there is only one way to deal with mobsters any place in the world an’ that is with a good sock in the puss in a quiet corner. (168)
Soon after this declaration, Caution beats a mobster, pulls a gun on him, and then tells him, “You an’ me is goin’ is to have a nice little quiet talk without any interruption. An’ you be good an’ do your stuff otherwise I am goin’ to paste seventeen different kinds of hell outa you” (171).

Strung together out of context, these bits may make Caution seem menacing, and by extension the novel may seem amoral, but readers of
Poison Ivy may see things differently. After all, Caution beats only mobsters, and readers may well take pleasure in seeing the bad guys treated this way. But will this pleasure make readers feel guilty—and will this guilt stop readers from sleeping? Perhaps in French translation, but in the original English, Caution is difficult to take seriously. As a result, English-language readers may not see Caution as a dark character at all.

Caution’s darkest moment comes after he has caught the mastermind behind the gold heist, and the criminal asks if Caution will leave him alone with his gun so that he can kill himself. The criminal says, “[M]aybe that would be the easiest way out for everybody,” and Caution replies, “I wouldn’t know about that, but if you do decide to bump yourself off, do it nice an’ quick, an’ don’t make any mistake about it” (180). Thus, Caution allows this self-execution, and readers may well question the morality of this sort of justice.

This darkness, however, does not last for long. One commonly cited hallmark of noir is an unavoidably bleak ending: The atmosphere is gloom, and the hero is doomed. But the ending of Poison Ivy is exactly the opposite. The title character, a standard-issue femme fatale, turns on the mob and then throws herself at Lemmy Caution, so our hero-detective brings the bad guys to justice and gets the girl, too. So while the gloom-doom definition of noir may apply to some novels of the genre, it does not work as a description of the early Série Noire. The ending of Poison Ivy, however, raises an interesting question to ponder about Duhamel’s description of the series: Can a book with a happy ending disturb readers enough to leave them sleepless?

Works Cited

Primary Source

Cheyney, Peter. Poison Ivy. 1937. Toronto: Collins, 1947.

Secondary Sources

Cheyney, Peter. Making Crime Pay. 1944. London: Faber and Faber, 1946.

La Môme Vert-de-Gris. French translation of Poison Ivy. Translated by Marcel Duhamel. Paris: Gallimard, 1945.

Duhamel, Marcel. [On the Série Noire.] 1948. Quoted in “Série Noire Project: Introduction” by David Rachels. Accessed 16 July 2010.

Guthrie, Allan. “200 Noirs” at Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals. Accessed 16 July 2010.

Coming next in the series . . .

Série Noire Project #2: Peter Cheyney’s This Man Is Dangerous (1936/1945)


  1. This Cheyney novel must have been painful to read. There is a strong possibility that he was influenced by Carroll John Daly and the actions of his main character, Race Williams. Daly was bad, but Cheyney makes me look at Daly with new respect...

  2. Painful, yes. Race Williams drives me crazy, too, but Daly at least seems in control of what he's doing.

  3. Great post, David. Really looking forward to the next nine installments.

  4. Thanks, Swierczy. As I sit here and type, I am in the process of summoning the will to read another Lemmy Caution. . . .

  5. Great post and great idea, thanks for this - and for the following installments. As for Duhamel taking Cheyney into Serie Noire, maybe he was thinking only of the fact that the line must make some money?

  6. And one thought still: maybe Cheyney's and Chase's books were cheaper than the American ones?

  7. It could be that, all financial things being equal, Duhamel would have preferred to launch the Série Noire with something that we would find more worthy. I am operating under the assumption that, at the very least, he wouldn't have launched the series with books that he didn't think qualified as noir.