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.
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.
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.