|Vintage Pulp||Jul 9 2021|
Turns out sharks like the catch of the day too.
As soon as we saw this cover for Peter Cheyney's 1950 novel Dark Bahama we had to read the book. We had to find out if this was a literal illustration. And yep, a guy gets eaten by a shark. The artist here, John L. Baker, painting this for Fontana's 1960 edition, must have really enjoyed creating something different from the usual gun toting studs and chain smoking femmes fatales. The story is different too. In a tale set on the fictional Bahamian island of Dark Bahama, Cheyney creates an array of Afro-Bahamian characters, filling roles from fishermen to police officials, and, surprisingly, writes them with something nearing respect. The addition of a mysterious Belgian character makes for another fun spot of diversity.
The protagonist is Julian Isles, a British detective hired to locate a globetrotting ingenue and rescue her from Dark Bahama before her partying and dubious associations permanently embarrass her family. Isles immediately walks into a murder scene, is suspected by the local cops, begins to think his client has lied to him, and sets about defying orders and expectations to get to the bottom of it all. Getting to the bottom involves working with the aforementioned Belgian cipher, Ernest Guelvada, a tough, romantic, eloquent, and ruthless operative of vague provenance. We thiink he's one of the best characters we've come across in mid-century literature. Just listen to this guy:
“I am delighted to meet you. I am more than delighted to bring a little excitement into your—what is the word—prosaic existence. Yes, goddam it, you will agree with me that there is nothing like a couple of murders to stir the blood of a police commissioner at three-thirty in the morning.”
“You think so? You lie. More than that, my friend, you love her. That I know. When you speak of her I see the look in your eye. I have discovered your secret. I will tell you something else. I also love her. I, Guelvada, who loves every woman in the world, love her at least as much as the other few million.”
“When I go into action, my friend, I like a lot of room and a lot of space. Like great armies I must have room to develop. Like great fleets I must have space to maneuver. You understand? It is for this reason that I do not wish this island to be cluttered up with non-essential women, and at the moment our beautiful Miss Lyon is non-essential. Therefore, she will stay in Miami.”
To us, that sounds like a writer having a very good time with an off-the-wall character. Guelvada's reasons for turning up change Dark Bahama from a mystery to an espionage tale, but we won't reveal the details. We suggest reading it yourself. Cheyney is famous for his Lemmy Caution series, which began back in 1935, but we think he's better here fifteen years later—a better stylist and a better conceptualizer, who's produced a generally better read than we think he was capable of back when he started out. The story is engaging, the femme fatale is fascinating, the secondary characters ring true, the bizarre Ernest Guelvada keeps reader interest high, and the island backdrop adds atmosphere and spice. With Dark Bahama Cheyney gave us more than our money's worth.