George Orwell called it 'a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere'. Graham Greene was equally enthusiastic - but who these days reads No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase?
Published in 1939 it was widely condemned for its explicit depictions of sex and violence, a British take on the pulp excesses of James M. Cain. This of course did no harm at all to sales but it was bad timing - that year saw developments that eclipsed the most lurid of hard-boiled fictions.
After the war No Orchids was successfully adapted for the stage and filmed (atrociously) in 1948. It may be the film version that sunk the novel's reputation; it was, according to Leslie Halliwell, a 'hilariously awful gangster film [and] one of the worst films ever made'.
It became, in those years before the Lady Chatterley Trial, a byword for a literary depravity. Chase, feeling the post-war generation would find his descriptions and plot obsolete, substantially re-worked the original in 1962. I recently read the book on Kindle in what I assume was the 1939 version. It's really very good, and I'd like to see what changes Chase introduced in the revised version - it might reveal something of the social and cultural shifts in the year before 'sexual intercourse began'.
|The film of the book|
James Hadley Chase (1906 – 1985) was born René Lodge Brabazon Raymond and unsurprisingly adopted several pseudonyms, including James L. Docherty, Raymond Marshall, R. Raymond and Ambrose Grant. Even by the standards of pulp genre writing he was astonishingly prolific, publishing over ninety novels of which no fewer than fifty were made into films. More then thirty of these were French movies. Imagine that! He's the anglophone Georges Simenon and one of the few British writers to have a large following in France. (There's surely a book to be written on the reputation of English language writers in mainland Europe. In Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century (a bizarre list that's worth a slack-jaw'd look) it comes immediately behind The Catcher in the Rye.)
Anyway - back to No Orchids for Miss Blandish. The main character is a psychopath, Slim Grissom, and the plot involves a kidnapping . . . but you should read it for yourself, because if it' the kind of thing you like you'll really like it. Below is a sample passage . . .
Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below Riley’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. Riley drew his lips back. HIs mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of Riley like a horrible malformation. Riley began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up. His weight on the ropes pushed the knife handle up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.
Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes
and squinted at Riley.
‘Take your time, Pal, We ain’t in a hurry.’ He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. ‘Ain’t them clouds pretty?’