James Hadley Chase
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 8, 2021. For some reason, the editors decided to remove the links I provided to enable readers to sample the works of James Hadley Chase free of charge.
I have returned to the work of James Hadley Chase and found it rather impressive. The particular novel I have just read has the kind of lazy and meaningless title that many of this author’s books are lumbered with. You Must Be Kidding tells you nothing about the book itself. Nevertheless, it is tautly written with not a word wasted. The plot reminds me of those Yuppie in Peril movies that were all the vogue in the 1980s and early 1990s. I am thinking here of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction from 1987, Alan J Pakula’s Presumed Innocent from 1990, Brian de Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities from 1990, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours from 1985. All these works show how easy it is to step outside the seemingly secure boundaries of a comfortable life and fall into an abyss.
You Must Be Kidding was published in 1979. It opens with that old TV sit-com cliché, “Hi Honey. I’m home”. This is shorthand for safe domestic and marital bliss. Ken Brandon is a successful insurance executive in Paradise City (“the billionaire’s playground: the most expensive, lush-plush city in the world”) not far from Miami Beach. His wife, Betty, also has a successful career, (working for an abortionist) earning more than Ken. “The Brandons had been married for four years and those years hadn’t blunted Ken’s feelings for her.” The fact that she earns more than him rankles a little and makes him ambitious and possibly a little greedy for more, but he was happy that “her earnings made it possible for them to live in a modest style which they both enjoyed, with two cars, a nice bungalow in a good residential district and they were able to save for the future.”
Things fall apart when Ken’s boss, Jefferson Sternwood, offers him a “promotion”, heading a new branch in Secomb, which he believes has a huge untapped source of profit – untapped because the people are poor. This is a foreshadowing of the later attempts by the “financial services industry” to make profits out of poor people through toxic packages based on sub-prime mortgages. Secomb is a working class district, mainly black, unlike the rich clients Brandon is used to dealing with. In Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy’s comfortable world falls apart when he takes a wrong turn on the expressway and finds himself in the “war-zone” of the South Bronx. Ken Brandon’s world is not destroyed by the black residents of Secomb. His troubles arise because he succumbs to the wiles of Sternwood’s daughter, Karen, who is assigned as his office assistant. Unfortunately for Brandon, she is “a superb, sensual young animal.” There is another sultry Sternwood, played by Lauren Bacall, in The Big Sleep.
After Brandon succumbs to Karen, they stumble upon the corpse of a girl brutally murdered. The police find a distinctive golf ball button at the scene of the crime. It matches one missing from Brandon’s jacket. One lie leads to another and detective Tom Lepski is pretty sure Brandon is the culprit. I will not go into too much detail about the plot in case you want to read the book yourself. It is available, as are many of Chase’s books, on free PDF:
The Taking of Miss Blandish
Chase’s first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which he wrote in 1938, caused a sensation and is still shocking today. The first time I read it must have been in the 1950s. It was strong meat for a small boy. My father was a member of Foyle’s Thriller Book Club and a number of crime books published in 1953 were arrayed on a bookshelf next to the armchair I usually sat in. I would dip in from time to time to these thrillers. Most were fairly bland (Agatha Christie, Eric Ambler, Earl Stanley Gardener) but Blandish was on a different level and not at all bland. The story goes that Chase wrote it for a bet to out-do The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. Gene D Phillips of Loyola University of Chicago confidently asserted that the plot was indebted to Sanctuary by Nobel laureate William Faulkner (who contributed to the confusing screenplay of The Big Sleep) and that Slim Grisson was modeled on Faulkner’s Popeye, a Memphis-based criminal who rapes Temple Drake and introduces her into a criminal world which corrupts her. Slim sounds a bit like Prabhakaran: he gained power “by the simple method of killing anyone who opposed him, until the gang finally settled down and accepted him as their leader.” Even in 1938, Chase spotted a now well-documented trait of psychopathic serial killers: “It did not come as a surprise when he caught him cutting up a new-born kitten with a rusty pair of scissors.”
Chase’s book deals with the accidental kidnap of an heiress by a gang of small-time crooks who are out of their depth. They lose their catch to a much more efficient and vicious mob. Riley’s gang lose their prize to Ma’ Grisson and her sadistic, sexually deviant son Slim. There is violence, creepy sex, gothic horror, evocative description and smart dialogue. “It began on a summer morning in July. The sun came up early in the morning mist, and the pavements were already steaming a little from the heavy dew. The air in the streets was stale and lifeless. It had been an exhausting month of intense heat, rainless skies and warm, dust-laden winds.”
Once again I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot in case you have the stomach to read it for yourself. It is unrelentingly bleak and do not expect a happy ending. It is available as a free download.
Chase published 90 novels. I have many of those books in a series I bought from MD Gunasena’s bookshop in Colombo. Chase’s books were very popular in India and Sri Lanka. The books I bought were published by Master Mind Books of Bangalore. It looks as though they are still available.
Chase’s best market was France (more than 30 books were made into movies) where all of his ninety titles were published by Éditions Gallimard in their Série noire series. At least 50 of Chase’s books were made into films in various countries. I saw one of those films, Eve, in the 1960s. Joseph Losey studied in Germany with Bertolt Brecht and then returned to the United States. Blacklisted by Hollywood in the McCarthyite 1950s, he moved to Europe where he made the remainder of his films, mostly in the UK, some in collaboration with Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. Most were critically acclaimed.
Joseph Losey’s Eve
Eve was not acclaimed. The original book was a psychological study of a prostitute (Chase, with his wife’s blessing, had picked out a “lady of the night” and offered her £5 and a good lunch if she would let him pick her brains). Chase’s 1945 novel was set against the background of the Hollywood film industry, and deals with Clive Thurston, who has swindled his way to fame, and Eve, who is beautiful but lethal. Losey’s version was transposed from Hollywood to Venice and starred an intense Stanley Baker as a Welsh writer obsessed with a cold-hearted femme fatale, Eve (Jeanne Moreau).
Losey said the producers made cuts without his permission and the film was a disappointment to him. It was described as the most traumatic disaster of Losey’s career. There was a positive review from Derek Winnert who wrote that “Losey’s dark thriller is really rather effective and underrated, and the actors are spot on in tailor-made roles.” There was a 2018 French version directed by Benoît Jacquot, starring Isabelle Huppert which was generally regarded as a stinker.
René Lodge Brabazon Raymond
Chase’s birth name was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond, and he had many pseudonyms, including, James L Docherty, Raymond Marshall, R Raymond, and Ambrose Grant. He was born on 24 December 1906 in London, the son of Colonel Francis Raymond a veterinary surgeon in the colonial Indian Army. His father intended him to have a scientific career and sent him to at King’s School, Rochester, Kent. During World War II he served in the Royal Air Force, achieving the rank of Squadron Leader. He edited the RAF journal with cartoonist David Langdon and had several stories from it published after the war. After Chase left home at the age of 18, he worked in sales, primarily focusing on books and literature. He sold children’s encyclopaedias, while also working in a bookshop. He also served as an executive for a book wholesaler. In 1932, Chase married Sylvia Ray, and they had a son. In 1956, they moved to France and In 1969, to Switzerland, living a secluded life in Corseaux-sur-Vevey, on Lake Geneva. Chase eventually died there on 6 February 1985.
HRF Keating did not visit India until ten years after he started writing about Bombay and Inspector Ghote. Chase wrote his books without any direct experience of the USA. He visited Miami and New Orleans a couple of times and quite late in his life. Most of the author’s knowledge of USA has been derived from encyclopedias, maps and dictionaries. During World War II, Chase became friendly with Merrill Panitt (subsequently editor of TV Guide), who provided him with a dictionary of American slang, detailed maps and reference books of the American underworld.