Friday, April 7, 2017

Forgotten Books: TWELVE "CHINAMEN" and a WOMAN (1940)


Yeah, I know the real title of this book, and so do you, but the copy I read said “Chinamen,” so I have a valid excuse (other than a creeping case of pc-itis) for calling it this.

Published in 1940, this one finds Dave Fenner, the extra-hardboiled detective introduced in No Orchids for Miss Blandish (reviewed HERE)having moved his office from Kansas all the way to New York City, and taken his office assistant/secretary Paula Dolan with him. His work on the Blandish case brought him plenty of jack, and his name is known far and wide, but there still isn’t much business coming through the door.

So Fenner and Paula are pleased to get a visit from a good-looking dame who gives them $6,000 to save her sister, who is somehow mixed up with 12 Chinamen. The opening scene is loaded with overtones of the opening chapter of The Maltese Falcon, making it one of the best in the book. Then a defunct Chinaman with a slit throat appears in Fenner’s office, and when he goes looking for his client, he finds only a severed arm and a female torso missing legs and head. In between there somewhere, a couple of Cubans show up to search his office, bringing shades of Joel Cairo.

The trail then leads to Key West, taking Fenner away from Paula, which is too bad, because their interplay is the best thing about this (and the Blandish) book.

Once in Florida, the story shifts into Red Harvest mode, with Fenner cozying up to two gang leaders in hopes of starting some fireworks. There’s plenty of tough talk, face punching, head kicking and other such mayhem, but almost no humor, as Fenner bulls his way through the Key West underworld.

The title is taken from a line of dialogue, and refers to the preferred racket of one of the gangsters. He smuggles twelve Chinamen at a time into the country, charging them around a thousand apiece for the privilege, then sells them for half that to West Coast employers. On the run Fenner takes part in, a “special” is included, that being a Chinese woman.

Yes, there are at least a dozen Chinamen in this book, but none play major roles. There’s a seemingly endless supply of nasty gun-toting Cubans, none of them named, doing dirty work for the gangsters. And of course there are plenty of gangsters, most of whom end up dead.

The finish offers a nice twist, and is reasonably satisfying, but getting there would have been a lot more fun if Chase had been half the stylist Hammett was, or had half the sense of humor.

The good news is, this is only the second half of the Stark House volume including the finally-published-in-America unexpurgated text of No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Together, these two (of only two) adventures of P.I. Dave Fenner make a nice (if brutal) package.

6 comments:

Jerry House said...

Didn't Agatha Christie write a book titled TEN LITTLE CHINAMEN?

Evan Lewis said...

I think that was TEN LITTLE NATIVE AMERICANS.

oscar case said...

I'm a fan of James Hadley Chase but haven't kept up with him.

George said...

Congratulations on your Edgar Award! Well deserved!

Chap O'Keefe said...

It seems strange that interest in James Hadley Chase tends to revolve around his stories about American gangsters set in imaginary American cities. It bothers me no more than pseudo-medievalism in sword and sorcery; I accept that we're in a fantasy land where a page-turning story comes first and foremost. But I do know the British-isms and the plain-wrong slang do bother many US readers. All the more surprising, then, that publishers don't first seek to reprint Chase's crime stories set authentically in post-war Britain. Many of these were first published by Jarrolds (London) in hardcover under the byline Raymond Marshall before finding their way into paperback under the Chase name. I'm currently re-reading Trusted Like the Fox, an excellent piece of noir that contains all of the best elements of classic Gold Medal crime which in internet wanderings I've seen claimed to be the inspiration of much of Chase's later work. But hang on ... TLTF appeared in 1946, long before Fawcett began its Gold Medal line of paperback originals. And the same can be said of other Raymond Marshall titles I would recommend to readers everywhere.

Todd Mason said...

And, of course, "Chinamen" isn't too cool these days. Comparable to "Negro" or "Hebrew" as a noun for a person in both cases.