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

Gil Brewer guns the dame down

We’ve been doing so much traveling this September, I only just finished the latest newsletter, which will post on Saturday, Sept 26th, just squeaking by before the end of the month. I talk a little about more the new Gil Brewer book, The Erotics/Gun the Dame Down/Angry Arnold, plus the upcoming October titles. It’s easy to get excited about the Brewer book.

Working on Gun the Dame Down was the real labor of love. The original typewritten manuscript was too faint and had too many corrections to scan. So I started from scratch, and retyped it page by page. Nothing quite gives you a feel for an author’s style like typing out an entire novel. I could see Brewer trying out some of the tropes of the wise-cracking detective novel, inserting quirky little character traits to make his characters come alive while creating the steamy feel of a hot summer night in Florida. I’m not such a great typist that I would want to do this with every previously-unpublished manuscript, but it was a lot of fun transcribing Brewer.

I could be wrong, but I think this is the first book where he introduces the dynamic of the older man and the seductive under-age nymphet that he used in some of his later books. You really can’t get much less politically correct than writing about that combination these days. I’m not going to take a moral stand on the issue myself, but the fact that the original editor had crossed these sections out doesn’t surprise me, even without the context of early 1950s censorship. The fact that I put them back in makes sense to me, because they help define the characters.

The main character, Bill Death, encounters just about every form of temptation and abuse a down-at-heels detective should have to take in a 24 hour period when he takes a case and walks into the household from hell. An over-sexed teen is only one of them. And let’s face it, part of the charm of Brewer is his sexual tension. His characters are usually after two things: sex and money. In Gun the Dame Down, it’s mostly sex. It took Brewer a couple more books before he got the balance right. But that doesn’t make Gun the Dame Down any the less obsessional, and certainly no less readable. For me, it’s the highlight of the collection.

Which brings me to George Tuttle, who first introduced me to these unpublished gems of Brewer’s. As far as I know, George was the first one to create a web page for Gil Brewer, which offers a very thorough look at all of Brewer’s works. His favorite is Angry Arnold, the serial killer book, and the last unpublished work in the collection. And a sick little serial killer Arnold is. He’s been in a car accident, and something has shaken loose in his moral makeup. He gets urges. Of course he does—he’s a typical over-sexed young man—but he himself has the sex appeal of a wet noodle. He resents all the beautiful women that won’t give him the time of day. So he kidnaps them, and….

Well, you get the picture. Were there a lot of serial killer books in the 1970s? I don’t think so. But by then, Brewer was trying all sorts of approaches to get back into print. At one point, he wrote an Executioner novel for Don Pendleton called Firebase Seattle. Everyone loved it except for Pendleton himself. And so it sits in storage. Brewer also wrote a spy thriller called The Paper Coffin which reads like a real period piece, when Euro-spy fiction was all the rage. Unusual for Brewer, the sex and money angle is toned down in this one.

Probably the most unusual book from Brewer’s slush pile is House of the Potato, a curiously static novel about a poor family in the Erskine Caldwell tradition. It feels very autobiographical, and reads like a first novel. Before Brewer developed the frantic style he started to develop in Gun the Dame Down, he didn’t seem to know what to do with his characters. In House of the Potato, they mainly seem to move from room to room, this character pining for that character, each one pissing the other off and interiorizing the pain. When someone gets around to writing Gil Brewer’s biography, I’m sure this book will get much discussion. In the meantime, it stands as the only book by Brewer that I’ve read that I most emphatically have not wanted to publish. And I’ve got pretty broad tastes.

Still, I think we put together a pretty good selection from these previously-published manuscripts of Gil Brewer’s, and since the book is out this week, I can now say, I hope you enjoy them.

—Greg Shepard

Bless the Stand-Alones

Unlike a lot of readers, I don’t tend to read series books. When I was a kid, I read most of the Tarzan and Pellucidar books by Burroughs, the Fu-Manchu mysteries from Rohmer, Dennis Wheatley’s Duke de Richleau historicals. These were series that had already been written—they had a beginning, middle and end. But for the most part, once I could see that a series was beginning to develop, I lost interest—too much information to remember from book to book, too many other authors to read. I’ve never read more than the first three Dune novels, the first two Ender books, the first Jack Reacher thriller, a handful of the Travis McGee and Lew Archer books, the first three Parker books, half the James Bond and Sherlock Holmes books…

Sure, I’ve made exceptions. The Philip Marlowe and Harry Potter books come to mind. But, really, I’m not even that crazy about trilogies.

That’s probably why I hold certain authors so dear to my heart: they didn’t write series. Authors like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Gil Brewer, Charles Williams, Vin Packer, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Even when Peter Rabe wrote a series around ex-gangster Daniel Port, he did so in a way that you really don’t have to read them as a series. My kind of author; my kind of series.

So when I decided to tackle Frank Kane, I knew I could either read a bunch of the Johnny Liddell detective books—of which there are about 30 or so—or pick out some of the stand-alones. You can guess which direction I jumped. I started by reading The Living End, the story of a What-Makes-Sammy-Run kind of heel set loose in the radio business circa the late 1950s. It’s a great rise-and-fall story, filled with the kind of detail that smacked of insider knowledge. Turns out that Frank Kane had been a radio and TV producer, and knew just what he was talking about.

But when it came time to pick two Frank Kane books to pair together for Stark House, I loved the idea of matching Liz with Syndicate Girl, two novels about strong women operating in a “man’s” world of violence and crime. Granted that Mary Lister, the “syndicate girl,” is a minor character in her book, but she’s still a pivotal one. Both books are a couple of lean, mean reads.

On the other hand, just to prove what a true contradictorian I can be, I recently read the entire Hart Muldoon detective/agent series by John Flagg (yeah, all five of them; I went wild), some of which I hope to bring back in the near future. They’re great world-weary fun. But first things first. The initial John Flagg reprint will be the very first Flagg book, which was also the very first Gold Medal paperback original thriller (#103 from 1950), a book called The Persian Cat, coming soon as a Black Gat release. It’s a stand-alone novel of post-WWII espionage featuring a cynical special agent named Gil Denby who is sent on a mission to Teheran. And yes, you guessed it, Flagg wrote only one Denby book. Bless him.

This was actually Flagg’s second published book, though. His first, The Velvet Well, was written under his real name, John Gearon, and it’s a great miasmic story of distrust as a spy suffering from a mental breakdown tries to decide who is a friend, who is not, and what is really happening around him. Author Dorothy B. Hughes called it “a story told with gripping tension, with ever mounting suspense leading to a corrosive climax.” I read it recently, and it reminded me of one of Hughes’ own mysteries. Another writer who didn’t write any series. Bless her.

–Greg Shepard