A close friend of Graham Greene, an author of over 80 books, James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was perhaps the first non-American to really capitalize on the lucrative pulp potential of the American criminal mythos.
Chase’s first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) was written by the former door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in a scant six weekends, with the help of a dictionary of American slang, reference books on the American underworld, and the wholesale lifting of the plot of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.
Chase was motivated by money, hoping to cash in on the popularity American hard-boiled crime fiction in the U.K. The book became a bestseller and while Raymond Chandlerderided No Orchids for Miss Blandish as "half-cent pulp writing at its worst," George Orwell observed "it is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere." But Orwell’s acute political antennae left him with the impression that the novel was "a day dream appropriate to a totalitarian age."
The improbable plot of the novel provided in part the inspiration for Raymond Queneau’s 1947 novel, On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes (We Always Treat Women Too Well). Indeed, at a critical part in the story, the father of the kidnapped girl—the eponymous Miss Blandish—refuses to take her back from her captors with the judgment "Better dead than deflowered." No wonder Orwell famously began his review of Chase’s book with the warning "Now for a header into the cesspool."
Here’s opening section of the first chapter:
IT BEGAN on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds.
At the junction of the Fort Scott and Nevada roads that cuts Highway 54, the trunk road from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, there stands a gas station and lunchroom bar: a shabby wooden structure with one gas pump, run by an elderly widower and his fat blonde daughter.
A dusty Lincoln pulled up by the lunchroom a few minutes after one o’clock. There were two men in the car: one of them was asleep.
The driver, Bailey, a short thickset man with a fleshy, brutal face, restless, uneasy black eyes and a thin white scar along the side of his jaw, got out of the car. His dusty, shabby suit was threadbare. His dirty shirt was frayed at the cuffs. He felt bad. He had been drinking heavily the previous night and the heat bothered him.
He paused to look at his sleeping companion, Old Sam, then shrugging, he went into the lunchroom, leaving Old Sam to snore in the car.
The blonde leaning over the counter smiled at him. She had big white teeth that reminded Bailey of piano keys. She was too fat to interest him. He didn’t return her smile.
“Hello, mister,” she said brightly. “Phew! Isn’t it hot? I didn’t sleep a wink last night.”
“Scotch,” Bailey said curtly. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and mopped his face with a filthy handkerchief.
She put a bottle of whiskey and a glass on the counter.
“You should have beer,” she said, shaking her blonde curls at him. “Whiskey’s no good to anyone in this heat.”
“Give your mouth a rest,” Bailey said.
He carried the bottle and the glass to a table in a corner and sat down.
The blonde grimaced, then she picked up a paperback and with an indifferent shrug, she began to read.
Bailey gave himself a long drink, then he leaned back in his chair. He was worried about money. If Riley couldn’t dream up something fast, he thought, we’ll have to bust a bank. He scowled uneasily. He didn’t want to do that. There were too many Feds around for safety. He looked through the window at Old Sam, sleeping in the car. Bailey sneered at the sleeping man. Apart from being able to drive a car, he was useless, Bailey thought. He’s too old for this racket. All he thinks about is where his next meal is coming from and sleeping. It’s up to Riley or me to scratch up some money somehow—but how?
The whiskey made him hungry.
“Ham and eggs and hurry it up,” he called to the blonde.
“Doesn’t he want any?” the blonde asked, pointing through the window at Old Sam.
“Does he look like it?” Bailey said. “Hurry it up! I’m hungry.”
He saw through the window a dusty Ford pull up and a fat, elderly man get out.
Heinie! Bailey said to himself. What’s he doing here?
The fat man waddled into the lunchroom and waved to Bailey.
“Hi, pal,” he said. “Long time no see. How are you?”
“Lousy,” Bailey grunted. “This heat’s killing me.”
Heinie came over. He pulled out a chair and sat down. He was a leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side. He was always picking up scraps of information, and often, for a consideration, he passed on any useful tips that might lead to a robbery to the small gangs operating around Kansas City.
“You can say that again,” Heinie said, sniffing at the ham cooking. “I was out at Joplin last night covering a lousy wedding. I was nearly fried. Imagine having a wedding night in heat like this!” Seeing Bailey wasn’t listening, he asked, “How’s tricks? You look kinda low.”
“I haven’t had a break in weeks,” Bailey said, dropping his cigarette butt on the floor. “Even the goddamn horses are running against me.”
“You want a hot tip?” Heinie asked. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Pontiac is a cinch.”
“Pontiac? That nag’s a fugitive from a merry-go-round.”
“You’re wrong,” Heinie said. “They spent ten thousand bucks on that horse and it looks good.”
“I’d look good if anyone spent all that dough on me,” Bailey snarled.
The blonde came over with his plate of ham and eggs. Heinie sniffed at it as she put the plate on the table.
“Same for me, beautiful,” he said, “and a beer.”
She slapped away his exploring hand, smiled at him and went back to the counter.
“That’s the kind of woman I like—value for money,” Heinie said, looking after her. “Two rolled into one.”
“I’ve got to get some dough, Heinie,” Bailey said, his mouth full of food. “Any ideas?”
“Not a thing. If I do hear I’ll let you know, but right now there’s nothing your weight. I’ve got a big job tonight. I’m covering the Blandish shindig. It’s only for twenty bucks, but the drinks will be free.”
“Blandish? Who’s he?”
“Where have you been living?” Heinie asked in disgust. “Blandish is one of the richest guys in the state. They say he’s worth a hundred million.”
Bailey speared the yolk of his egg with his fork.
“And I’m worth five bucks!” he said savagely. “That’s life! What’s he in the news for?”
“Not him: his daughter. Have you ever seen her? What a dish? I’d give ten years of my life for a roll in the hay with her.”
Bailey wasn’t interested.
“I know these rich girls. They don’t know what they’re here for.”
“I bet she does,” Heinie said and sighed. “Her old man’s throwing a party for her: it’s her twenty-fourth birthday—just the right age. He’s giving her the family diamonds.” He rolled his eyes. “What a necklace! They say it’s worth fifty grand.”
The blonde came over with his meal. She was careful to keep out of his reach. When she had gone, Heinie pulled up his chair and started to eat noisily. Bailey had finished. He sat back and began to pick his teeth with a match. He was thinking: fifty grand! I wonder if there’s a chance of grabbing that necklace? I wonder if Riley would have the nerve to make a try for it?
“Where’s the party—at her house?”
“That’s right,” Heinie said, shoveling food into his mouth. “Then she and her boy friend, Jerry MacGowan, are going on to the Golden Slipper.”
“With the necklace?” Bailey asked casually.
“I bet once she puts it on, she’ll never take it off.”
“But you’re not sure?”
“She’ll be wearing it all right. The press will be there.”
“What time will she be at the roadhouse?”
“Around midnight.” Heinie paused, his fork near his mouth. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing.” Bailey looked at him, his fleshy face expressionless. “She and this guy, MacGowan? No one else?”
“No.” Heinie suddenly laid down his fork. His fat face was worried. “Now look, don’t go getting any ideas about the necklace. You’d start something you couldn’t finish. I’m telling you. Riley and you aren’t big enough to handle a job like that. You be patient. I’ll find something you can handle, but not the Blandish necklace.”
Bailey grinned at him. Heinie thought he looked like a wolf.
“Don’t get excited,” he said, “I know what I can and can’t handle.” He stood up. “I guess I’ll be moving. Don’t forget: if anything comes up, let me know. So long, pal.”
“You’re in a hurry all of a sudden, aren’t you?” Heinie said, frowning up at Bailey.
“I want to get off before Old Sam wakes up. I’m not buying him another meal as long as I live. So long.”
He went over to the blonde and paid his check, then he walked over to the Lincoln. The heat hit him like a clenched fist. After the whiskey it made him feel a little dizzy. He got in the car and paused to light a cigarette, his mind busy.
Once the word got around about the necklace, he was thinking, every little gangster in the district would sit up and wonder. Would Riley have the nerve to grab it?
He nudged Old Sam awake.
“Come on!” he said roughly. “What the hell’s the matter with you? Don’t you do anything but sleep these days?”
Old Sam, tall, wiry and pushing sixty, blinked as he slowly straightened up.
“Are we going to eat?” he asked hopefully.
“I’ve eaten,” Bailey said and set the car moving.
“How about me?”
“Go ahead if you’ve got any dough. I’m not paying,” Bailey snarled.
Old Sam sighed. He tightened his belt and pushed his greasy, battered hat over his long, red nose.
“What’s gone wrong with this outfit, Bailey?” he asked mournfully. “We never have any money now. One time we were doing all right; now nothing. Know what I think? I think Riley spends too much time in the sack with that broad of his. He isn’t concentrating on business.”
Bailey slowed the car and pulled up outside a drugstore.
“Give your mouth a rest,” he said and getting out of the car, he walked into the drugstore. He shut himself in a telephone booth. He dialed, and after a long wait, Riley came on the line.
Bailey could hear the radio blaring and Anna singing at the top of her voice. He started to tell Riley what he had learned from Heinie, but gave up.
“You can’t hear what I’m saying, can you?” he bawled. “Can’t you stop that goddamn noise?”
Riley seemed half dead. Bailey had left him in bed with Anna. He was surprised he even bothered to answer the telephone.
“Hang on,” Riley said.
The music stopped, then Anna began to shout angrily. Bailey heard Riley bellow something and then the sound of a loud smack, Bailey shook his head, breathing hard down his nose. Riley and Anna fought all day. They drove him nuts when he was with them.
Riley came back to the telephone.
“Listen, Frankie,” Bailey pleaded. “I’m roasting alive in this goddamn booth. Will you listen? This is important”
Riley began to beef about the heat at his end.
“I know: I know.” Bailey snarled. “Will you listen? We’ve got the chance of grabbing a necklace worth fifty grand. The Blandish girl will be wearing the necklace tonight. She’s going to the Golden Slipper with her boy friend— just the two of them. I got the word from Heinie. It’s the McCoy. What do you say?”
“Fifty grand. Blandish—the millionaire. How about it?”
Riley seemed to come alive all of a sudden.
“What are you waiting there for? Come on back!” he said excitedly. “This is something we got to talk about. Come on back!”
“I’m on my way,” Bailey said and hung up. He paused to light a cigarette. His hands were shaking with excitement Riley wasn’t as yellow as he thought, he said to himself. If we handle this right, we’re in the money!
He walked with quick strides back to the Lincoln.
Old Sam looked at him sleepily.
“Wake up, stupid,” Bailey said. “Things are cooking.”