James Hadley Chase novels were once the favorites of all college going boys and girls in India. When I was in college, the paperback versions had started coming out and I too got addicted to him and his racy style. I am not sure he is being read now, but people of my age or even the ones who are a decade or two younger than I am do get nostalgic when his name is mentioned.
His No Orchids for Miss Blandish came out in 1939 the year in which world war II started. Believe it or not its another title was The Virgin and the Villain! It became a huge hit and it sold more than half a million copies in hard-bound edition.
American heiress Miss Blandish is kidnapped by a gang of inept criminals trying their hand at big-time crime. Their plans are foiled when a rival mob, led by the sadist Slim Grisson, set their sights on the glamorous million-dollar hostage. Meanwhile, Private Detective Dave Fenner is hired to rescue her. Fenner is no stranger to the criminal underworld. If corruption and violence are necessary, Fenner will do what it takes to get the job done. Behind the scenes, Slim becomes obsessed with his hostage, lashing out at anyone who attempts to wrestle Miss Blandish from his charge. When Fenner makes his move, Slim won’t give her up without a fight. Slim is sexually impotent, but takes a macabre fancy to Miss Blandish. Slim’s mother, who is the real brains of the gang, sees in this the chance of curing Slim’s impotence, and decides to keep Miss Blandish in custody till Slim shall have succeeded in raping her. After many efforts and much persuasion, including the flogging of Miss Blandish with a length of rubber hosepipe, the rape is achieved. By means of bribery and torture the detective and the police manage to round up and exterminate the whole gang. Slim escapes with Miss Blandish and is killed after a final rape, and the detective prepares to restore Miss Blandish to her family. By this time, however, she has developed such a taste for Slim’s brutality that she feels unable to live without him, and she jumps out of the window of the building in which she has been held captibe.
The reason why I chose this novel over the other novels of Chase is that this novel has the privilege of a review by none other than George Orwell! He concedes that this is no ordinary novel. I can do no better than quoting a few passages from his long review.
It is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere. …, the whole book… is written in the American language; the author, an Englishman who has (I believe) never been in the United States, seems to have made a complete mental transference to the American underworld.
It is implied throughout No Orchids that being a criminal is only reprehensible in the sense that it does not pay. Being a policeman pays better, but there is no moral difference, since the police use essentially criminal methods. In a book like He Won’t Need It Now the distinction between crime and crime-prevention practically disappears. This is a new departure for English sensational fiction, in which till recently there has always been a sharp distinction between right and wrong and a general agreement that virtue must triumph in the last chapter. English books glorifying crime (modern crime, that is — pirates and highwaymen are different) are very rare.
Several people, after reading No Orchids, have remarked to me, ‘It’s pure Fascism’. This is a correct description, although the book has not the smallest connexion with politics and very little with social or economic problems…. It is a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age. In his imagined world of gangsters Chase is presenting, as it were, a distilled version of the modern political scene, in which such things as mass bombing of civilians, the use of hostages, torture to obtain confessions, secret prisons, execution without trial, floggings with rubber truncheons, drownings in cesspools, systematic falsification of records and statistics, treachery, bribery, and quislingism(treachery) are normal and morally neutral, even admirable when they are done in a large and bold way. The average man is not directly interested in politics, and when he reads, he wants the current struggles of the world to be translated into a simple story about individuals;
One ought not to infer too much from the success of Mr. Chase’s books. It is possible that it is an isolated phenomenon, brought about by the mingled boredom and brutality of war. But if such books should definitely acclimatize themselves in England, instead of being merely a half-understood import from America, there would be good grounds for dismay.
The Book as a film
The book was made into a film and the British press attacked it without mercy. Monthly Film Bulletin described the film as “The most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen“, claiming that the BBFC (censors) had seriously erred in judging the film suitable for exhibition. The Daily Express critic claimed that “the film sets out to appeal to the prurient-minded, the twisted, the unbalanced”. Sunday Times review was in the form of a letter to the censor, claiming the reviewer was surprised the board had found the film fit for exhibition and that the reviewer was so stunned by it that she was “momentarily … incapable of movement“!
Dr. Edith Summerskill, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food in the Labour government, subsequently made a presidential address to the Association of Married Women claiming that the film would pervert the minds of the British people and urging the members to protest. Labour MP Tom Driberg also tabled a parliamentary question asking whether a Royal Commission could be appointed to examine the BBFC’s working methods!
Amidst this mounting pressure, the BBFC claimed to be puzzled about the “excitement” generated by the film, as significant cuts had been required and what remained was “a normal gangster film, no more brutal than many made in Hollywood“.
When I read it now
When we read the books in the seventies of the last century, the second world war was a distant event and we didn’t consider the book Fascist at all. After all, we were then all aware that the Fascist techniques were much more gory than the novel’s imagined horrors. But one thing that pricked me was the unrelieved violence in the novel and the complete absence of hope. Even today, it is the hopelessness that hit me when I read it again. In that respect, the novel is depressingly anti-human.