I am sorry if someone got omitted or an error appears. I will correct any problems as I can.
James Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle mystery series set during World War II. He is working on book five. You can find him at http://www.jamesrbenn.com/
James Hadley Chase No Orchids for Miss Blandish
James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934) and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, 1930) are often cited as the fathers of crime noir, often in the company of Raymond Chandler.
These three put their mark on the genre, a mark as genuinely American as the authors and their settings. Los Angeles and San Francisco were distinct New World settings for this new, groundbreaking genre in which the hero is a lone, violent, individualistic man who makes his own rules and lives by his own code, perhaps a reaction to the cozy and conventional British mysteries of the day.
But there’s an Englishman in this noir family tree. James Hadley Chase came out with No Orchids for Miss Blandish in 1939,and extinguished any faint light of hope that may have remained in the hardboiled universe, as if the story had been telegraphed from the dark side of the moon.
That Chase borrowed themes and characters heavily is fairly clear. What is remarkable is that he composed this story at all. Inspired by a reading of The Postman Always Rings Twice, he set out to write an American gangster novel, armed only with what he could learn from encyclopedias and books about Depression-era settings.
Chase also firmly put the rape of a kidnapping victim at the center of the narrative, pulling so few punches (for his era) that in subsequent editions, some of the most violent acts were deleted.
The Miss Blandish of the title is the beautiful, red-haired daughter of a rich tycoon, who is known as the Meat King, a wonderful moniker for a book in which so much flesh is violated in so many ways. Miss Blandish (she never has a first name) is kidnapped by a gang inspired by the real life Ma Barker and her brood. Here, Ma Grisson sees in Miss Blandish not only the potential for ransom, but in a warped gesture of motherly love, as a source of love for her brutal and sadistic son Slim (not to mention a cure for his impotence).
Using drugs and a rubber truncheon, Ma Grisson turns Miss Blandish into a sex slave for Slim. After months of captivity, with the police and the FBI ineffectual, the Meat King father hires private eye Dave Fenner to track down the gang and free his daughter. He does have one requirement, though. “Better dead than deflowered”.
By the time Fenner is introduced, the reader will be yearning for a hero, after the violence and death that precedes him. But Chase does not relent in his theme, focusing on getting the job done, whatever the cost. Might is indeed right, so much so that George Orwell, in his famous essay Raffles and Miss Blandish in Horizon Magazine, October 1944, equates Chase’s realism with Fascism, primly stating that “in lowbrow fiction one still expects to find a sharp distinction
between right and wrong and between legality and illegality.”
Given the state of the world in 1944, Orwell’s concern about fascist tendencies infecting the populace through “lowbrow” fiction is understandable. Overblown or not, he was dead on about the lack of any sharp distinction in Chase’s debut novel. When Fenner needs information from a gun moll, he succeeds by threatening to burn her boyfriend’s face with an electric grill. When he turns Eddie Schultz, who has critical information but who won’t spill the beans, over to the police for a good old fashioned third degree, Eddie takes the punishment. It’s Fenner who gets impatient.
Fenner turned sour. “Quit playin’ with him, can’t you?” he said to the cops.
“This guy’s tough, ain’t he? Well, get tough too.”
They did. Eddie spilled. The end justified the means. Later, Dave sends in a hat-check girl to look for Miss Blandish in Ma Grisson’s hideout, where she’s killed. No orchids for her, either. Not for nothing does Orwell introduce his description of the novel in his essay with this line:
Now for a header into the cesspool.
No Orchids for Miss Blandish has been said to be one of the bestselling mysteries ever published. It was a huge and immediate success, and was the most popular book among British troops during the Second World War. At the height of the Blitz, it was said that in any bomb shelter, you could find someone reading it. Orwell chalked this up to “the mingled boredom and brutality of war.” My forthcoming novel RAG AND BONE (Soho Press, September 2010), takes place in London during the renewed Blitz of early 1944, and I could not resist placing this book in the hands of a reader sitting out a raid in the Liverpool Street Underground.
Orwell may have been onto something, but his condescending tone is out of touch. In 1940, with the Blitz in full swing, England standing alone against Nazi Germany, and defeat following defeat, this may have been a “daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age” as Orwell characterized it. A British infantryman in the North African desert might sharpen his bayonet, thinking of what had to be done in the coming battle, where might, if it did not mean right, certainly meant life. One of the advertisements for the book laid the claim, that it “will take you by the scruff of the neck and beat the daylight out of you.” Winston Churchill was doing much the same for the British people. Grabbing them by the scruff of the neck for a good shaking awake, at least.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the publisher’s blurb to a subsequent edition will prepare the reader. “The sufferings and ultimate fate of the kidnapped Miss Blandish leave one gasping…” Indeed.
James H. Chase wrote over eighty books in his life, some with the recurring character of Dave Fenner, others with a former CIA agent, but always Americans, even though he paid only three brief trips there. A favorite line is from his thriller Eve, which was made into a film.
Do you know how much this weekend’s going to cost me?
Two friends, thirty thousand dollars…and a wife.
And who is the character talking to? His wife.
I'm British, live in the county of Derbyshire in the UK and have been married for almost 5 years to a wonderful American lady from Illinois.
I currently run a blog in my spare time called 'The Last Picture Show', which is devoted to movies and music. My favourite decade has to be the seventies, when my social interests invariably propelled me to the cinema, or concert halls where I witnessed the punk rock revolution from first-hand.
My tastes in cinema include the works of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Kieslowski and other auteurs, while I can often be found listening to a wide range of artists, from The Clash to The Velvet Underground, to Abba.
One day, my wife and I hope to settle in America, so she can show me the wonderful country of her birth.
FINAL CUT: Dreams And Disasters In The Making Of Heaven's Gate, Steven Bach
" All art is knowing when to stop."
One of the most unfairly maligned films in recent cinema history? That would certainly be my take on Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate", although the author of this book had good reason to disagree. Apart from the director, the late Steven Bach -one-time studio exec at United Artists - was the only person to be involved with the film from beginning to end, as a $7.5 million budget ballooned to over $36 million.
FINAL CUT follows this incredible story, revealing gross mismanagement, the opposition to the casting of Isabelle Huppert as the female lead and how Cimino slowly dragged United Artists into the abyss, forever changing the way films would be made.
Those who actively detest Cimino's film will find plenty of extra ammunition within this book, though Bach always tries to remain objective and is honest enough to admit his own shortcomings. Naturally, there are a ton of anecdotes and valuable passages of information, not only concerning this film but other projects of the era which either succeeded, failed or still exist on faded manuscript.
We learn how an enraged, John Hurt, issued an ultimatum as his upcoming role in "The Elephant Man " drew ever closer; why no-one from United Artists had seen the finished picture before its opening night, and the reason why Cimino asked that his film be temporarily withdrawn from distribution. Just a few examples of the turmoil surrounding a production that ruined more than one career.
Whether you love or hate 'Cimino's folly', I doubt FINAL CUT will do much to sway your opinion. It's a frank, and often witty account, of a director who thought he was right and by an author who begged to differ, and tailor-made to be read at a single sitting.
With its wonderful tag-line, "What one loves in life are the things that fade" - which could have come straight from the pages of an Edith Wharton novel - "Heaven's Gate" is full of performances that stay with you; magisterial photography; heartbreaking lines of dialogue and a soundtrack seemingly composed from a better place than the mortal coil we inhabit.
Perhaps Steven Bach - battered and bruised from this ferocious war - was way too close to appreciate what had become a troublesome part of his life? Perhaps, but let's leave the last words to Steve.
"The music saved me. I had always liked the music."
Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE and many other novels. You can find him here.
Between the ages of ten and fourteen I probably read a hundred or more
traditional mysteries. In those days, the Fifties, the type I preferred leaned heavily on plot and atmosphere. The ones that dealt with the mysteries of adulthood offered the titillation of modest sexual references but I was too young to understand the emotional underpinnings of all that smart intriguing adult behavior.
I've never outgrown the enjoyment some traditional mysteries give me. Even when I was reading fifteen hard-boiled paperbacks a month I still picked up a traditional at least twice a month or so.
Today I have a list of reliables whom I read each time they publish, one of them being Anne Perry. I prefer her first series, that of commoner Inspector Thomas Pitt and his royal wife Charlotte. Perry writes in a straight clear way that allows for a fair amount of description--necessary if she's to create a believable Victorian era--that somehow never seems to slow the story.
If you haven't read Perry I'd suggest you start with RESURRECTION ROW, an early Pitt and Charlotte notable for its cleverness of plot and its particularly droll skewering of the British royal classes.
The set up is a bit like Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (a film only I seem to enjoy) in that the corpse of Lord Augustus Fitzroy-Hammond keeps being buried and then keeps reappearing, still dead of course, in hansom cabs and church pews among other places. But make no mistake. For all Perry's occasional ironical comments on the society her books are almost always about evil. They are filthy with it.
In Resurrection Row Perry takes us through a land where the trajectory of one's life is often set at birth. The poor are poor and shall forever be so, often as the handmaidens and fetchers of the wealthy. She gives us a cast drawn from both ends of the class system and lavishes motives on each person. Perry is good at what I call double-back plotting. She likes to give readers a surprise and then quickly trump it with an even bigger surprise. She's master at it.
Don't worry--if you like picture postcards of the Victorian era they're here, everything from the extraordinary mansions to the upstairs-downstairs staff to the opera to the Gilbert and Sullivan
opera that opens the book. Fortunately that's not enough for Perry nor, I suspect, for the legions of readers who've made her an international best seller.
She's got a hangman's thirst for justice and she takes no prisoners.