NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (1939) and TWELVE CHINAMEN AND A WOMAN (1940) by James Hadley Chase

Chase_Orchid-Chinamen_shpNo Orchids for Miss Blandish is a famous book that for years only aficionados have been able to read in its original, unexpurgated version, and the same goes for its less well-known follow-up, Twelve Chinks and a Woman (as it was first known in the UK). Those very nice people at Stark House Press have remedied this by publishing the original uncut versions of both texts in this essential double-bill that comes with a fascinating essay by John Fraser that looks at the publishing history and reception of Blandish.

I submit this review for Bev’s Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Patinase blog, devoted today to debut books.

She flashed round on him, spitting like a cat.
“I tell you this is phoney,” she stormed. “You’re lying.” – from No Orchids for Miss Blandish

No Orchids for Miss Blandish remains easily the best-known work published by British writer René Brabazon Raymond (who published most of his nearly 100 books either as ‘James Hadley Chase’ or ‘Raymond Marshall’). It marked his debut as a novelist and with its extreme violence and heavy doses of sex and drugs was clearly intended to make a splash – which it certainly did! In 1939 it was met with extraordinary dislike by critics and was, perhaps not coincidentally, a gigantic hit with the reading public. This was mainly due to its sensationalist approach to its fairly nasty subject matter (the eponymous heiress is kidnapped by gangsters who then fall out in brutal fashion while she undergoes various forms of violence and degradation). However, almost immediately, publishers, and Chase himself, started to tinker with the text, reducing its most extreme passages. The approved text in general circulation for the last half century or so in fact has been derived from some of the limited changes first made in 1942 and more radical alterations Chase imposed for a 1961 paperback reprint. These substantially amended the story, changed the fate of some of the characters and toned down its depictions of sex and violence quite considerably. This has now all been restored and it does make a quite considerable difference – the text is still quite shocking in fact, not just for the extra sex and violence, but for its sheer cynicism and sense of cosmic despair.

“He ain’t gettin’ her back,” Ma Grisson said.
Eddie thought for a moment. “You rubbin’ her out?”
“”Slim wants her,” Ma told him. “When he’s through with her she gets knocked off. She’s seen too much.” – from No Orchids for Miss Blandish

Chase_Blandish_penguinAs I previously pointed out in this post, even some modern sources have been absurdly, even hysterically, critical of the book but to me this still seems quite a well structured and thematically rich work – for instance, the fact that Miss Blandish has no first name points to her being somehow incomplete, as per the title, a theme explored in an original and unusual if sometimes somewhat murky fashion. Despite the sordid milieu, high body count and roughness of some the writing (and some very unconvincing use of American slang), the book still makes an impact and deserves to be read. George Orwell famously took the novel apart in his 1944 essay ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’ (which you can access online here) and it remains a fascinating analysis that does not in fact play down Chase’s skills – the argument is purely ideological. For an especially detailed analysis of the book, its various possible inspirations and the bewildering changes made to the various editions over the decades, you really must check out John Kelly’s long and fascinating essay, Some Orchids for James Hadley Chase.  Despite what you may feel about violence in fiction (I’m not keen), generally speaking the 1939 version is certainly preferable so it is great to have it easily available again in a good paper edition.

The Cuban had given one high-pitched squeal of terror as he saw somethign coming at him, then Fenner was on him. – from Twelve Chinamen and a Woman

Chase_12_-Chinks_jarroldsPretty much the only characters that survives Blandish unscathed (comparatively speaking) is private detective Dave Fenner and his secretary Paula, who star in the follow-up Twelve Chinamen and a Woman (as it was subsequently reprinted in the US). Since the Blandish case, they have relocated to New York but after six months not a lot has been happening. And then Marian Daley enters their office, and things start to happen at top speed – here is a brief summary of just what happens in the opening chapter: Marian says she is looking for her sister, who has fallen in bad company in Florida, and makes a strange reference to twelve Chinamen. She then shows Dave the terrible bruises on her back to prove that she is serious about her search. She hands over $6,000 and just as Paula is trying to book her into a hotel for safe-keeping she runs away. Then a dead Chinamen is planted in the Dave’s office for the police to find. Then a pair of Cuban gangsters arrive and beat the hell out of Paula and Dave. He then manages to track them down and kills them both after finding the remains of Marian’s body in their bathroom (as she has been partially dismembered, he can only identify her by the bruises on her back). He then follows a clue and heads off to Florida! Now, admittedly there are only five chapters in this book (it was a common complaint that Chase’s early books had too few chapters) but this is breathless and violent stuff.

“Those two Cubans got hold of that girl, killed her and carved her up. I caught them cartin’ her away. They’re dead. I killed ’em both. Don’t interrupt. Let me tell you fast” – from Twelve Chinamen and a Woman

What is most startling here is that if you changed the lead characters names to Mike and Velma and made the villains into Commies, then this could easily pass for a Mickey Spillane adventure from a decade later, so Chase certainly deserves credit for picking up from where James and Paul Cain left off and running with it. On the other hand, I can’t imagine Mike Hammer ever reaching the point, as Fenner does here, or being so badly beat up that he tries to commit suicide, not once but twice, before the beating re-commences. Incidentally, while the debt to the Cains and Faulkner is undisputable, Fraser in his essay makes a very good case for Jonathan Latimer’s 1938 minor classic The Dead Don’t Care as being a much greater influence on Chase’s first book.

Twelve Chinamen certainly makes for an exciting read, keeping your interest by moving at a tremendous pace – but admittedly is not as memorable as its predecessor. The American vernacular is poorly rendered and the plot overly convoluted to little real purpose – but more importantly, it lacks the earlier book’s hypnotic power and troubling subtext of sexual perversity and also suffers from not really able to find an equivalent for the tragic figure of Miss Blandish herself. For all that, it is well worth a read for its energy alone and is certainly the right companion for this superb double-bill from Stark House Press, easily one of their best publications to date.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish / Twelve Chinamen and a Woman
By James Hadley Chase
ISBN: 978-1-944520-06-9 (paperback), 284 pages, $19.95
www.starkhousepress.com/ 

I submit these two reviews for Bev’s 2016 Golden Age Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘Jewelry’ category (for the penguin edition of Blandish) and ‘Redhead’ (for Chinks):

08-Vintage-Golden-Scavenger-2016

***** (3.5 [aggregate] fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Florida, James Hadley Chase, Kansas City, New York, Stark House Press. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (1939) and TWELVE CHINAMEN AND A WOMAN (1940) by James Hadley Chase

  1. Certainly No Orchids… was a game-changer, as the saying goes. And it’s interesting that the reading public saw that right away. One of the things that strikes me about it is the messages it conveys about society, about women, and about hope, among other things, without actually doing so, if that makes sense. That makes those messages all the more potent.

    • Thanks for that Margot – historically Blandish is certainly relevant but it is also brutish and sad, even despairing in some ways – very much of its time and yet updating it really would not be difficult. Shocking modern audiences would be, though …

  2. tracybham says:

    I am torn. The violence sounds off-putting, but I am definitely in favor of reading the original texts. I will probably try at least one of these, and maybe both. Good for Stark to make the original text available.

  3. Colin says:

    I had no idea the original text was out there – well done the publishers on doing so. And the follow-up is new to me. That’s another pair to add to the always lengthy list.

    • This makes for a very interesting volume and I am very glad to have it on the shelf – there was, technically, a direct sequel, Flesh of the Orchid, but most people ignore it as it relies on the ending of the original novel not making a lot of sense …

      • Colin says:

        Not read that either, but maybe one to keep in mind for curiosity value.

        • At the very least chum, at the very least. How did the Peter Rabe go?

          • Colin says:

            Not quite finished yet – I’ll need the weekend as I’ve been under a bit of pressure and just wasn’t always in the mood to read. I can say it’s fairly well written and quite readable. I o find the main character very unlikable though – I wouldn’t call him the hero or even the anti-hero as he’s too thuggish and dumb to characterize in such a way. Fr me, a story needs to have someone to care about, and this one just doesn’t. There’s an FBI man who could have been but he’s too lightly sketched and not central enough. The main man we do get is just not sympathetic, and I find that problematic.

          • I think I know exactly what you mean chum – I used to read a lot of tough guy books of that ilk and that was usually the problem for me too and as I get older I am even less tolerant of that. The thrill of violence really isn’t enough – not sure it ever was, but I am even less tolerant that I used to be, that’s for sure!

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I just don’t feel all that engaged in it – too much thick ear at the expense of everything else.

          • Year, that’s for younger guys perhaps – I just can’t really manage that, not any more anyway.

  4. John says:

    Correction to your reporting above: The first US hardcover edition (Howell & Soskin, 1941) as well as the 1st US paperback of Twelve Chinks and a Woman (Avon Mystery Monthly 7, 1948) both kept the orignal title. The first time the title was changed in the US was in an abridged version in 1950. But then a later paperback book (Avon 485) released in 1952 went back to using the original title. Looks like the offensive word had not yet been eradicated even after all the Yellow Peril books of the 1920s and 1930s. Once at a book fair I passed a table where some daring dealer purposely put out a copy in a prominent display. And I remember lingering at that table just so I could overhear the reactions to the title.

    I still can’t get over that No Orchids for Miss Blandish was so notorious for its content that it was banned at one time. And that there are expurgated editions of the book that you rightly mention above. Still haven’t read it and not sure I’m interested even out of curiosity. I’ve read passages quoted in many articles written about the book. Not my thing at all.

    • Thanks for that John, I should have been much clearer about the re-titling – it does seem extraordinary that it took that long! I do find that it has a powerful, almost poetic feel to it by its end, partly because of its extremes but also because, even if Chase couldn’t quite define what he was grasping for, there is a strong tragic undercurrent that does enable it. It is worth at least one serious read, I think. The follow-up is less interesting, but isn’t that so often the way with follow-ups?

      • Todd Mason says:

        I somewhat suspect that “Pauline Reage” found herself writing a more important book than she originally intended to with HISTOIRE D’O, and perhaps Chase did as well with ORCHIDS.

        • Blimey, that takes me back to my youth – never read the book by Anne Cécile Desclos, but remember all the fuss about Corinne Clery, though I was mainly impressed by her appearance in the James Bond epic Moonraker – ah, sweet bird of youth (ahem) .. the modern equivalent could be EL James I suppose … Just thinking about that publishing phenom bores me to tears!

  5. Sergio, I remember this story all too well, having reread it a couple of years ago. I also remember the violence in the end and I thought it was all very bloody, very unlike the Chase novels that followed, very mild in comparison. I have read most of the Chase books with the exception of the odd novel like “Twelve Chinamen and a Woman” unless, of course, I read it under another title. Anyway, I had no idea there was a follow-up to “No Orchids for Miss Blandish.” Chase and Gardner, those were the earliest “thrillers” I read in my teens.

  6. I’m with Prashant on James Hadley Chase. His early books were violent. His later books had tricky plots and troubled characters. I love the covers on the British paperbacks of Chase’s works.

  7. I presume that the version I’ve read is the censored one – I’m not sure I need to read the full thing, but you do make it sound interesting. And you do a good job on the second one too: you may have sold this to me…

    • Thanks Moira – would love to know what you make of this – The critical reaction to Chase’s first forays an that of early Ian Fleming was not dissimilar …

  8. Good choice, excellent review. I have a later 1950s pb which is the edited text, but it’s still powerful. The other book is new to me – I didn’t pursue Chase after reading the one book.

    • Thanks Richard – I read some from the 60s which tend to read more like caper / noir tales of thieves falling out etc and thought they were decent enough, certainly much milder than these two.

  9. Yvette says:

    An interesting post, Sergio (as always) but you know me – I shy away at excessive violence. Still, I enjoyed reading about two books that I should probably stay away from. 🙂

  10. Yvette says:

    My first comment disappeared, Sergio. I’ll try again.
    Thanks for another intriguing post. Even though I probably wouldn’t read these two books, I still like knowing about booky stuff even though I shy away at excessive violence.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    The Latimer was very much a Big Deal, as you probably know, success via scandal and all. Banned in, if not Boston, perhaps enough other places.

  12. Matt Paust says:

    Strikes me as almost a parody of the Spillane style, which, I suppose, was itself sort of a parody of the Hammett/Chandler approach. Entertaining review, Sergio.

    • Thanks Matt – well, these Chase books had the same kind of impact that Spillane did, and the same kind of culural impact, but nearly a decade earlier so before the paperback revolution

  13. Pingback: HE WON’T NEED IT NOW (1939) and THE DEAD STAY DUMB (1939) by James Hadley Chase | Tipping My Fedora

  14. Pingback: 2016 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt | Tipping My Fedora

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