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no orchids for miss blandish

11 may 2016

No Orchids for Miss Blandish shows numerous weird dualities. It's not weird per se – it's a standard hard-boiled gangster yarn – but it's sure as heck contradictory and hard to place.

Its author wasn't himself, to start with. "James Hadley Chase" was one of a number of pseudonyms adopted by English writer René Raymond. Raymond liked to set his pulp novels in America. Those initial contradictions aren't that odd; two of the greatest American private-eye writers, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, were English and Canadian respectively, and "Ross Macdonald" was a pen name, too.

Both Chandler and Macdonald were long resident in Southern California. No Orchids for Miss Blandish is set in Kansas City, and I don't think Chase was ever even in Kansas City. Whether he'd been there or not, his Kansas City has no specific identity. It has streets, bars, restaurants, hotels, and such, and apartments with television sets blaring; outside the city there are farms, gas stations, roadhouses. I have rarely read a book with less local color. But by draining specific local color from his work, Chase put it oddly in line with some American hard-boiled fiction. Not with Chandler, whose works are quintessentially "L.A."; but with Cornell Woolrich and C.W. Grafton, who employ generic cities with generic street plans, living quarters, and institutions.

And then there are the television sets, which I was taken aback to see in a 1939 novel. But come to find that Chase rewrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish extensively in the 1960s, adding at least the television sets – though so little else from the 1960s that it's hard to say why he felt revision was necessary. There's a helicopter, I guess that's something. Although it's now 1962, we're still in a setting where numerous "gangs" prowl a city and its countryside, à la Bonnie and Clyde, which is to say à la the Depression, not the New Frontier.

And at that, despite their "Thompson guns" and their fast cars, these gangsters resemble Depression-era tough guys less than they resemble Western outlaws: trade in the Buicks for broncos and you'd have yourself an oater instead of a private-dick story. In this respect No Orchids for Miss Blandish reminded me of the westerns of Marcial Estefania, another European who had traveled sparingly, if at all, in the America he wrote about. Wikipedia will tell you that both Chase and Estefania drew their United States from encyclopedias and atlases. I'm not sure if Chase got character names out of the phone book, but he might as well have. Most novelists probably did, back when there were phone books.

So I was reading a 1962 rewrite of a 1939 book, printed in 2014 – I'm not sure exactly what the heck I was reading. I bought it on-line from some supplier that was among a few fly-by-night options, none of them from exactly major publishers: my copy is a perfect-bound edition, lackadaisically proofread, without a place of publication. I have rarely seen such a cult literary work have such a tenuous hold on print. I'd have done much better trying to find the book in French; dozens of Chase's novels are in print in French translations, and I could have gotten a used copy of Pas d'orchidées pour Miss Blandish in "Trés Bon" condition for €2.99.

Though he's beloved in France (and at least in print in the UK), Chase is barely in evidence in the country he wrote about. He hovers in the American imagination, when at all, as a footnote to an essay by George Orwell. "Raffles and Miss Blandish" contrasts stuffy, old-fashioned crime novels with newer hard-boileds, which draw from American models:

There exists in America an enormous literature of more or less the same stamp as No Orchids. Quite apart from books, there is the huge array of "pulp magazines," graded so as to cater for different kinds of fantasy, but nearly all having much the same mental atmosphere. A few of them go in for straight pornography, but the great majority are quite plainly aimed at sadists and masochists.
Orwell goes on to make the memorable observation that No Orchids for Miss Blandish bears "the same relation to Fascism as, say Trollope's novels have to nineteenth-century capitalism. It is a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age." In particular, Orwell, who sounds unusually stuffy and prudish in this essay, notes that "in lowbrow fiction one still expects to find a sharp distinction between right and wrong and between legality and illegality" – whereas in No Orchids for Miss Blandish we find merely the pursuit of power and the visceral admiration of violence.

And despite his stuffiness, Orwell has a point. When Chandler, writing like Orwell in 1944, said of the detective story that "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean," he had in mind his own Philip Marlowe – though not, perhaps, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade. And certainly not James Hadley Chase's Dave Fenner, the private detective who solves the Blandish case. Fenner comes into No Orchids for Miss Blandish only halfway through, arriving in a package of private-eye clichés including painted lettering on his frosted-glass office door and a doll of a secretary pining for his attentions. Fenner is handy and functional, but of a piece with the gangsters he's pursuing. Miss Blandish's father hires him because he has "connections with the underworld" and "can freelance among the mobs with no restrictions" (69). (He's not a former gangster, though he's possibly worse: he's a former newspaperman.)

Fenner is after money and position, and Orwell is right: power drives him as it drives everyone else in the novel. Yet Fenner does seem like a sympathetic, ultimately gentle soul, unshy as he may be of violent solutions. He is good to Miss Blandish when he finds her, and dismayed by the novel's ending – which you can see a good ways in advance, and was in any case spoiled by George Orwell 72 years ago, so don't blame me :)

It's been a long time since anyone expected to find a sharp distinction between right and wrong in genre fiction. (And Orwell makes the point that even by 1944, nobody expected to find such a distinction in "literary" fiction.) Yet one still has one's expectations, even if they're those of 2016 instead of 1944. One of them is that there should be strong women characters – not necessarily ideal women, maybe not even admirable women; but there should be women who chart their own courses and deal with men as equals. The central woman in No Orchids for Miss Blandish, the title character, is like a "zombie" most of the time, shot full of hop so that the gangster Slim can have his way with her (and perhaps so that Chase didn't have to create a believable upper-class woman character), so she does not qualify. There are a couple of other easily-led women, but also some with nerve, including a stripper who plugs a nosy tipster with her .25. And the novel features one fully self-actualized woman, the leader of the gang of kidnappers: Ma Grisson, who makes Margaret Wycherly in White Heat look like Marmee in Little Women. Ma Grisson is a ghastly caricature (my dear, I'm starting to sound like George Orwell), but "she knocked off four cops before they got her" in the climactic gunfight. "She fought it out like a goddamn man!" (142)

Chase's copious use of "goddamn" illustrates Orwell's raising "the curious fact of No Orchids being written — with technical errors, perhaps, but certainly with considerable skill — in the American language." He's right about that, too – if you are a fan of American hard-boiled writing, you probably won't tip to the Englishness of its author unless clued in, and even then will find little to complain about. And it's a hell of a goddamn story. Orwell called it "a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere." It deserves more notoriety west of the pond.

Chase, James Hadley. No Orchids for Miss Blandish. 1939, 1962. n.p.: Greatman, 2014.