RARA-AVIS: Chase (was: British Noir - some roots)

From: Al Guthrie ( allanguthrie@ukonline.co.uk)
Date: 23 Jul 2002

----- Original Message ----- From: "Etienne Borgers" < wbac1203@wanadoo.be>
> James Hadley Chase (Raymond Marshall was his second pseudonym)
> This British writer has to be remembered as well, in spite of all the
> negative aspects one may find to his work, going from plagiarism to
> hyperprolific production, with the use of ghost writers (more than rumors
> pretend Graham Greene was one of them for a couple of novels signed by
> and the standardization of the last part of his corpus.

It's hard to believe that the same person wrote "The Dead Stay Dumb" (1939) and "One Bright Summer Morning" (1963). Most writers improve throughout their career, a few remain on the same level, but Chase's decline is so steep that you'd swear that by 1946 ("Make the Corpse Walk") his grammar and syntax have reverted to that of a struggling and really quite remarkably ungifted twelve year old.

>In spite of all
> this, Chase was an important and successful noir producer with some
> influence on writers that followed, at least with the novels he wrote at
> the beginning of his career (from the first one in 1939 until - roughly-
> 1950).
> Even if Chase was sometime mimicking American writers, in his first
> later he had a real influence of his own- at the time-, and therefore
> certainly belongs to the roots of Brit Noir.

Despite what I said above, "No Orchids For Miss Blandish" and "The Dead Stay Dumb" (both 1939) are excellent. Not everybody agrees, of course. Some people disagree quite strongly, in fact. George Grella, writing in "Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties", has this to say:

"NO ORCHIDS..represents the ultimate in the decadence of the form. The work of an Englishman who obviously learned all he knew about the United States from gangster fiction, [not true: he owned a map and a dictionary of American slang - Al], the novel's plot is loosely stolen from Faulkner's SANCTUARY. In dialogue, action, locale, and character the book is ridiculous; it would be a funny example of American gangster influence in England if it were not an utterly obscene book. Like Faulkner, Chase uses the impotent gunman, another apparently unmotivated killer, and his love for an unattainable girl whom he has kidnapped, as the center of the novel. The book shows a relentless obsession with the most frighteningly sadistic and masochistic cruelty, an appallingly brutal sexuality, and a voilence so explicit, so badly presented, and so meaningless as to make Mickey Spillane seem a very reticent, old-maidish type with his nose only pressed against the torture room window. Chase apparently took all the elements he found striking in gangster fiction and magnified them as far as his imagination and the censors would allow; the result is one of the rarest of rare birds
[can a book become an honourary rara-avian? - Al], a truly horrible book."

If anyone is still tempted to read NO ORCHIDS, watch out. There are two versions. The second, 1961, "has been rewritten and revised by the author who feels the original text with its outmoded dialogue and its 1938 atmosphere would not be acceptable to the new generation of readers who may be curious to read the most controversial, the most discussed and the best known gangster story ever to have been written." At this point, as you no doubt can infer, the author was losing it big time. A suspicious mind might even consider the possibility that JHC wanted to strip Graham Greene's influence from the book, hence the revision. Anyway, collaboration or not, get the 1939 version.


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