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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More Deadly Than the Male

I just finished reading More Deadly Than the Male by James Hadley Chase, the story of a lonely guy in London who tries to impress the people around him with stories of being in the mob in America, stories he’s read about but has as much chance of having experienced as bedding Veronica Lake. And therein lies his problem. The poor chap has never been with a woman. So when he falls in with a con man and a dark-haired woman introduced as his sister, he’s ripe to be taken for a serious ride. And that’s just what they do.

Cora is just about the baddest femme fatale you are likely to meet between two book covers. She leads our hero, George Fraser, by the nose and other extremities until he’s fit to be tied, always promising him something she has no intention of delivering, badgering him, taunting him, denying him. Until he commits murder.

I only mention all this because More Deadly Than the Male such a fascinating book for Chase to have written. George Fraser is constantly reading about American gangsters, imagining himself doing the things that he can only read about. And Chase himself, an Englishman in love with all things American, became a writer who wrote almost exclusively about American criminals, setting most of his books in a fictionalized Florida.

It’s as if Chase took a good, hard look in the mirror, decided he didn’t like everything he saw, and decided to write a book about a poor schmo who has all his obsessions, but none of Chase’s talent and drive. George Fraser has no idea how to be a success. James Hadley Chase was a monstrous success with his very first book, No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Fraser lacks confidence and, where Cora is concerned, all common sense. Chase, on the other hand, parlayed his storytelling skills over 90 books, flipping off his critics whenever he got the chance.

I’m a sucker for Chase. I don’t mind admitting it. Chase is my guilty pleasure. He’s no Hemingway. He’s no Goodis. But I find it damn impossible to pick up one of his books and not get hooked within the first couple pages.

More Deadly Than the Male was actually a bit of a pace change from the usual Chase thriller. The momentum is built more leisurely, the plot sneaking up on you rather than announcing itself in the first chapter. You might even call it a bit depressing considering that you’re following the story of a grown man who makes a total fool of himself over an uncaring woman—until he finally finds himself becoming the very hardguy he’s been reading about.

This was the only book Chase published under the name “Ambrose Grant,” so he was playing a bit of hard-to-get right off with this one. It was only his twelfth published novel, coming out in 1946, and not published under the Chase name until 1960. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was ever published in the U.S. Closest we ever got over here to this one was a Canadian paperback back in ’48.

It’s an interesting little treasure. Stark House might pick it up some time, but there are no plans for it. In fact, outside of recommending James Hadley Chase’s thrillers in general, this isn’t the first book I’d suggest if you’ve never read him. But having said all that, I loved it. And it made me jump right into another Chase book, Tiger by the Tail, so maybe there will be more Chase at Stark House at some point. From my guilty pleasure to you.

—Greg Shepard
Publisher, Stark House Press

In Praise of W. R. Burnett

Why isn’t W. R. Burnett being read today? Readers sing the praises of James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson and David Goodis. If people are reading these guys, why aren’t they reading Burnett?

Sure, Burnett wasn’t eccentric like Goodis, disturbed like Thompson or grimly pessimistic like Cain. He hadn’t been a detective like Hammett and he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve like Chandler. He was just a guy from the Midwest who grew up knowing the score. He was born into a political family and moved to Chicago in his late 20s, where he hung out with prizefighters and hustlers. He got a job as a night clerk in a seedy hotel and wrote a whole slew of unpublished novels and short stories. These are the experiences that went into the writing of Little Caesar which became a bestseller and got him a screenwriting gig in Hollywood, where, unlike some of his fellow writers, he flourished.

Burnett wrote nearly 40 screenplays between 1930 and 1970. Some of them, like Beast of the City, Scarface and High Sierra, are classic gangster films. Some, like This Gun for Hire and The Racket with Robert Mitchum, are simply great crime movies. But he wrote political novels (The Giant Swing and King Cole come to mind), historical novels (I highly recommend The Goldseekers about the Alaskan gold rush) and westerns as well—novels like Saint Johnson about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and film scripts like San Antonio with Errol Flynn, and Sergeants Three with Frank Sinatra. Plus war movies like Action in the North Pacific, Background to Danger and The Great Escape.

And if he didn’t write the screenplay, well, most of his novels were filmed anyway. Probably the most famous besides Little Caesar are High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle, both directed by John Huston. W. R. Burnett was all over the place.

So why isn’t he being read all over the place today? I don’t know. He had a very even handed approach to characterization. There really weren’t any heroes and villains in his books, just people. He saw the humanity in the guy who enforced the collection of graft money for the big boss, just as much as he did the obsessive newspaperman who tried to track him down and expose him. Or the old con who tries to find love in the arms of a crippled girl. Or the boxing champion who is no match for a conniving wife. Or the classically-trained pianist who just wants to play after-hours jazz.

These aren’t corrupt or doomed human beings as such. They’re regular folks trying to do their jobs and live life as best they can, most of them tragically brought down by the weakness of compassion, the very spark that we all relate to. This is the hook for me, the dialogue and the characters. Once I start a Burnett book, I can’t put it down.

I’ve read a lot of them, and Stark House has reprinted four of those: It’s Always Four O’Clock, Iron Man, Little Men Big World and Vanity Row. I hope to reprint a lot more. And if there’s any justice, modern audiences will find these books and start reading Burnett again. In the meantime, if you’re curious about Burnett’s many novels, track down the January and February 2002 issues of FIRSTS: The Book Collector’s Magazine. Editor Robin H. Smiley writes about collecting Burnett and provides the most definitive look at his various works that I’ve ever read.

–Greg Shepard