Friday, March 24, 2017

Forgotten Books: NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH by James Hadley Chase

To begin with, this title is absolutely correct. There are no orchids in this book for Miss Blandish or anyone else. I don’t believe there is even a mention of orchids, so if your name happens to be Nero Wolfe, I suggest you turn to another blog.

Otherwise, read on.

I’ve had a book bearing this title (the Avon “Classic Crime” edition of 1961) kicking around the house for years, but resisted reading it. Somehow I had learned it was a revised and toned-down version of the notorious original. I mean, if I’m going to read a book famous for its brutality, why settle for a watered-down version?

A couple of years ago, I got curious again and tried to learn if any of the many reprint editions contained the original 1939 text. And it just got more frustrating. Best I could learn was that it had been officially revised by Chase (aka Rene Brabazon Raymond) in 1942 and again in 1961, with numerous variants published in between. I tried to track down a genuine first edition through InterLibrary Loan, and failed that too.

So I continued not reading it, until finally—just last year---Stark House came out with an uncensored, unexpurgated version, featuring the original text.

Was it worth the wait?

Well, it was pretty dang interesting. Back in 1939, it was probably the most violent book ever published, and I can see why it raised a ruckus. By now, I’m sure it’s been surpassed many times, but not by anything I’ve read, or would care to read.

The basic plot is this: Miss Blandish (no name given), daughter of a really rich guy, is kidnapped by a gang of brutal thugs. Almost immediately, she is re-kidnapped by a gang of infinitely more brutal thugs. As you would expect, brutality ensues. This continues until a private detective—relatively brutal himself, but with redeeming senses of humor and honor—is hired to find her.

To give you an idea of the caliber of crook she’s dealing with, her chief tormentor, Slim Grisson, was once caught by his school master “cutting up a new-born kitten with a rusty pair of scissors.” Slim does everything violently, right down to way he picks his nose. Leading the gang is the kitten-cutter’s mother, who has “shoulders like a gorilla,” and flesh hanging “in two loose sacks on either side of her mouth.” On meeting Miss B, Ma says, “You’re going to stay here until your old man comes across” and “If he tries to be smart, I’m going to take you apart in bits, and those bits will be sent to your pa every goddam day until he learns to play ball.” And she ain’t fooling.

P.I. Dave Fenner, who makes his first appearance almost halfway into the book, knows how to deal with such folk. Switching on a portable electric stove, he watches the filaments turn red and says, “I could get a hell of a kick clappin’ this poultice on that’s rat’s mug.” And he ain’t fooling, either. Later he holds a fry pan full of hissing grease over another rat and announces, “You’ll talk or I’ll slop this fat in your mug.” The rat talks.

Chase delivers many nice turns of phrase. As in, “There was a dead man lying on the floor. There could be no mistake just how dead he was. The small blue hole in the centre of his forehead told Eddie that he was as dead as a lamb cutlet.”

The story is set in the U.S., and though Chase did pretty well with Americanese, a few British terms and spellings slipped through. Words like kerb, cheque, bell-push, boot (for trunk), grips (for suitcases) and lift (for elevator). At one point Fenner says, “It’s sweet fanny to me who happened to Heinie. That little rat’s got nothin’ to do with me.” Sweet fanny?

The afterword to the Stark House edition, by John Fraser, discusses the novel’s complex publishing history and probable sources. One insight of particular interest to me was the mention of Jonathan Latimer’s The Dead Don’t Care, published in England the year before Orchids. Fraser quotes a passage in which Crane ponders what happens to pretty women at the hands of kidnappers. Crane is pretty sure he knows, but wonders why no one ever talks about it. Fraser thinks this scene may have been in Chase’s mind when he came up with Orchids. According to Fraser, the original 1939 text appears in a 1977 Corgi paperback and and 1961 Robert Hale edition, both published in Great Britain. This new Stark House book (which also contains, you may have noticed, Twelve “Chinamen” and a Woman) appears to the first American printing of the real thing.

P.S. In case you missed it, over the past four days I’ve taken a nosy look at the bookshelf of author Stephen Mertz, featuring books by Cleve F. Adams, Michael Avallone, Robert Leslie Bellem, Carroll John Daly, Lester Dent, Donald Hamilton, Dashiell Hammett, Robert E. Howard, Joe Lansdale, Don Pendleton, Richard S. Prather, Bill Pronzini, Bob Randisi and others. You can view the whole shebang HERE.


George said...

I'm reading the latest STARK HOUSE omnibus edition of James Hadley Chase: JUST THE WAY IT IS and BLONDE'S REQUIEM. Art Scott has collected the cool Corgi Books editions of Chase with those wonderful wrap-around covers!

George said...

Loved the Steve Mertz Library tour! He's got some great books!

Mike Doran said...


"Sweet Fanny", or more formally "Sweet Fanny Adams", is a prime example of how the British sweetened up the rougher slang terms of their times.
"Sweet Fanny Adams" derives from "Sweet F.A.", which of course refers to Great Britain's Football Association, which governs what we here in the Colonies call soccer.
As it happens, "F.A." has a different meaning, which I'm not sure I can refer to in a family blog, so there too ...

Evan Lewis said...

Just the Way it Is/Blonde's Requiem is in my reading stack, too, George.

Thanks, Mike. Though I'm a fan of real football, and the F.A., I've never heard that expression. I know what "fanny" means (which aint' the same as this) and now, thanks to you and Google, I know what "Sweet F.A." means. It still seems mighty odd in the mouth of an American hardboiled detective.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I have read this book more than once. Chase was stark and gritty in his early novels.

Anonymous said...

"Sweet Fanny Adams" refers to a child murdered and mutilated in Victorian England. At about the same time, the Royal Navy began to be supplied with tins of meat and the sailors had an obvious explanation for where the meat came from. As Mike Doran says, the term was shortened to "Sweet F. A." and was associated with a well-known phrase which also had the opening letters "F.A."...

Rick Robinson said...

Fine review. I have an edition, but not the real deal one you read in the Stark House edition. I haven't read it, just because I haven't gotten around to it, and who knows when - if - I will.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Phil read it and said he didn't think I could make it through. But it's sitting there so who knows.

Cap'n Bob said...

I read it years ago but I don't know what edition. Not the original, I'm sure. I also saw the movie The Grissom Gang with Kim Darby as Miss Blandish. Alas, it was rewritten heavily so she could take center stage. In the book she wasn't around near as much.

BTW, I thought fanny was a British slang term for vagina.

Christopher Davis said...

Funny, I was just thinking about Miss Blandish yesterday, and why I just could not finish it for love or money.

Even if one gets beyond the ridiculous slang that was never spoken by anyone anywhere, the total wimpy nature of Miss Blandish herself was an insult to American women.. (although there may be British women that passive in the face of danger).

Orwell says James Hadley Chase was born when the supply of remaindered pulp magazines, which were used as ballast up 'til the war, dried up, and so the Brits had to resort to this 'ersatz' fare. "Hard cheese," as we DON'T say.