The Hardboiled Brit

James Hadley Chase is an interesting guy. His real name is René Brabazon Raymond, born in Ealing, London, back in 1906. Served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, though apparently not as a pilot. He did, however, edit the RAF journal and wrote several stories for it. Back in civilian life, he sold children’s encyclopedias and worked in a bookshop. I’m guessing that’s where he first encountered American authors like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Jonathan Latimer.

Chase certainly was a canny fellow. He turned his love of American hardboiled fiction into a lifetime career. His first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish—which we’re reprinting in March—is filled with gangster slang (“gumshoeing” as a verb is my favorite) and lots of violent action. Sure, there are a few “shan’ts” in there. That happens when you’re just starting out. You’ve got your American city maps and your dictionary of American slang handy, but you’re still English born and bred. Those occasional British phrases will slip through.

But for the most part, Chase wrote hardboiled American thrillers.

Interestingly enough, Chase is said to have visited the U.S. only twice in his life, once to visit Florida, and another time, New Orleans. You’d never know it. He started imitating that clipped, wisecracking American speech pattern right from the start, and only got better at it as he went along. I can imagine him watching American gangster films, and reading Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or Latimer’s The Dead Don’t Care, or even Paul Cain’s Fast One, and saying to himself, I bet I could do that.

Chase wrote fast. In his writing lifetime—spanning 46 years—he published over 90 novels, and at least one original play; that is, a play not based on No Orchids for Miss Blandish. No Orchids always remained his steady bestseller over the years. It was not only turned into a British stage production, but was made into two films as well. Probably the best known version here in the States is Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang with Kim Darby and Tony Musante. A lot of Chase books were made into films.

But No Orchids, the story of the brutal gangland kidnapping of a rich heiress, is the book also got him into trouble. For starters, Chase borrowed the basic plot of the kidnapping from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Some critics held that against him. Then the British authorities sued him and his publisher, Jarrolds, for excessive sadistic violence in this book and Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief, and forced him to tame the books down. Which, given the times, makes sense. There’s a knifing scene in No Orchids that is still hard to take.

So here we are in 2016, and I thought it was time to reprint No Orchids for Miss Blandish in its original, unexpurgated version, from that first British edition back in 1939 that so distressed the squeamish and caused all the stir—while still selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

And, naturally, if I was going to reprint No Orchids for Miss Blandish, I figured I might as well pair it with the also-edited Twelve Chinamen and a Woman, since both books feature the same hero detective, Dave Fenner. They both needed to be restored. At least, that was my thinking. But, really, any early books by James Hadley Chase are worth reprinting. They’re all brisk, inventive, filled with plot twists and interesting characters, and great fun to curl up with. Time goes by quickly when you’re reading a Chase thriller. And if you can read just one without wanting to pick up another one right after, you’re a better man than I.

—Greg Shepard
Stark House Press

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