Friday, April 03, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “No Orchids for Miss Blandish,” by James Hadley Chase

(Editor’s note: This is the 47th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from James R. Benn, author of the Billy Boyle World War II Mysteries. The third and most recent entry in that series, Blood Alone (2008), was selected by BookPage as a Mystery of the Month. It was also an Indie Next Pick, and was tagged as a “Killer Book” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Benn’s fourth Boyle title, Evil for Evil, is set to be released in September 2009 by Soho Press.)

James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934) and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, 1930) are often cited as the fathers of crime noir, frequently in the company of Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, 1939).

Those three, and others of course, put their mark on this genre, a mark as genuinely American as were the authors and their settings. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the backroads of California were all distinct New World settings for this new, groundbreaking genre in which the hero is a loner, a violent, individualistic man who makes his own rules and lives by his own code. Some definitions of noir crime fiction point to it as a clear reaction against the cozy and conventional British mysteries of the day.

But as I found recently, there’s an Englishman squatting in that noir family tree. James Hadley Chase (whose real name was Rene Brabazon Raymond) came out with his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, in 1939, and extinguished any faint light of hope that may have remained in the hard-boiled universe, as if the story had been telegraphed from the dark side of the moon.

That Chase borrowed themes and characters heavily, as well as playing fast and loose with his personal and writing history, is fairly clear. What is remarkable is that he composed this story at all. Inspired by a reading of The Postman Always Rings Twice, he set out to compose an American gangster novel, armed only with what he could learn from encyclopedias and books about Depression-era U.S. settings. Chase also firmly put the rape of a kidnapping victim at the center of his narrative, pulling so few punches (for the time) that in subsequent editions, some of the most violent acts were toned down or removed entirely.

The Miss Blandish of the title is the beautiful, red-haired daughter of a rich tycoon, who is known as the Meat King, a wonderful moniker for a book in which so much flesh is violated in so many different ways. Miss Blandish (she never has a first name) is kidnapped by a family gang, inspired by the real-life Ma Barker and her brood. Here, Ma Grisson sees in Miss Blandish not only the potential for ransom, but in a warped gesture of motherly love, a source of affection for her brutal and sadistic son Slim (not to mention a cure for his impotence). Using drugs and a rubber truncheon, Ma Grisson turns Miss Blandish into a sex slave for Slim. After months of captivity, with the police and FBI ineffectual in locating the young lady, the Meat King finally hires private eye Dave Fenner to track down the gang and free his daughter. He does have one requirement, though: “Better dead than deflowered.”

By the time Fenner is introduced, readers of this novel will be yearning for a hero, after the violence and death that precedes him. Chase, though, does not relent in his theme, which focuses on getting the job done, whatever it takes. Might is indeed right, so much so that George Orwell, in his famous Horizon magazine essay from 1944, “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” equates Chase’s realism with fascism, primly stating that “in lowbrow fiction one still expects to find a sharp distinction between right and wrong and between legality and illegality.”

Given the state of the world in 1944, Orwell’s concern about fascist tendencies infecting the populace through “lowbrow” fiction can be understood. Overblown or not, he was dead on about the lack of any sharp distinction in Chase’s debut novel. When Dave Fenner needs information from a gun moll, he succeeds by threatening to brand her boyfriend’s face with an electric grill. When he turns Eddie Schultz, who has critical information but who won’t spill the beans, over to the police for a good old-fashioned third-degree, Eddie takes the punishment. It’s Dave who gets impatient.
Fenner turned sour. “Quit playin’ with him, can’t you?” he said to the cops.

“This guy’s tough, ain’t he? Well, get tough too.”
They do. Eddie spills. The end justifies the means. Later, Fenner sends in a hat-check girl to look for Miss Blandish in Ma Grisson’s hideout, only to see her killed. No orchids for the hat-check girl, either. Not for nothing does Orwell introduce his description of the novel in his essay with this line:
Now for a header into the cesspool.
No Orchids for Miss Blandish is said to be one of the best-selling mysteries ever published. It was a huge and immediate success, and was the most popular book among British troops during the Second World War. At the height of the Blitz, it was said that in any bomb shelter, you could find someone reading it. Orwell chalked this up to “the mingled boredom and brutality of war.”

He may have been on to something, but his condescending tone gets in the way. In 1940, with the Blitz in full swing, England standing alone against Nazi Germany, and defeat following defeat, the situation may have seemed like a “daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age,” as Orwell characterized it. A British infantryman in the North African desert might have sharpened his bayonet, thinking of what had to be done in the coming battle, where might, if it did not mean right, certainly meant life.

One of the advertisements for No Orchids book laid this claim, that it “will take you by the scruff of the neck and beat the daylight out of you.” After years of political isolation, and having been dubbed a cranky old fool, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was doing much the same thing to the British people. Grabbing them by the scruff of the neck for a good shaking, at least.

I won’t spoil the ending, but the publisher’s blurb to a subsequent edition will prepare the reader. “The sufferings and ultimate fate of the kidnapped Miss Blandish leave one gasping ...” Indeed.

James Hadley Chase wrote more than 80 books during his lifetime, one other of which also featured Dave Fenner. In addition, he penned series about a former CIA agent and a California private eye. His protagonists were always Americans, even though Chase paid only three brief trips to the United States. One of my favorite lines is from his 1945 thriller, Eve, which was made into a film:
Do you know how much this weekend’s going to cost me? Two friends, thirty thousand dollars ... and a wife.
And who is the character talking to? His wife.


Michael Carlson said...

Yes, it's fairly clear Chase borrowed more than just themes and Faulkner's Sanctuary and it's clearly beyond mere borrowing...just more drooling!

Chris O'Grady said...

I remember the redoubtable NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, and was suitably impressed and delighted (shows how depraved a kid I was). I've been trying ever since, but never could quite match the brio Mr. Chase achieved in his book, as witness my just published hard-boiled private eye novel THE FOREVER GIRL - ISBN # 160693-993-2
Speaking of greats, near-greats (and maybe ingrates, too, like myself), has anyone recalled a great book called KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS by Gerald Butler? It achieved a curious fame during the Second World War when guys on a US aircraft carrier in the Pacific Theater were reading a paperback copy of the book, passing around torn-out chapters of the thing. It developed into a suspenseful masterpiece, but not for the guys on that ship. Reason? Someone lost the last chapter and the guys were going crazy, so they began writing home asking their folks and wives to try to get a copy of it. So with five thousand or more guys from all over the country getting their wives and parents to ask at bookstores for KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, even the sluggish publishing business of the time began to wake up after awhile. Upshot was, someone dug up a copy and a publisher even published the thing. Hurray for Gerald Butler. I ahould be so lucky with my book, eh?

Max Allan Collins said...

NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH is a lost book in a couple of ways -- Chase re-wrote it for later editions, fairly elaborately, and because of censorship there are a number of variant versions out there.

The much maligned British film is on DVD now (in PAL format of course) and is great fun. But the best BLANDISH of all is Robert Aldrich's film of it, THE GRISSOM GANG, with Robert Lansing as Dave Fenner -- making GRISSOM the second private eye film by Aldrich (after KISS ME DEADLY). It's one of Aldrich's strangest, most subversively poignant films.

Anonymous said...

Just why is it called No Orchids for Miss Blandish, the book that is? I just finished it, and there was no clue in it. Also, the hatcheck girl did not get killed as you say. Are there multiple editions of the this literary gem?

James R. Benn said...

I don't recall any specific reference to orchids myself - but several of the covers feature them. As Max pointed out above, Chase did issue different versions with varying degrees of violence, so that may account for what you read.

Jim Benn

Kitchen Benchtops said...

This one is so exciting that once you start reading it you won't stop until end. Great Author! love his books..