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The Toughest Novel You’ve Ever Read: The Strange Story of James Hadley Chase

George Orwell had some choice words for this 1939 crime novel.

james hadley chase

No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase is a raw slice of 1930s hardboiled American crime. Filled with gangsters, gats, molls, and sadistic violence and set in New York City it sold two million copies. What few of the novel’s readers would have suspected was that the author was an upper-crust Englishman who had never set foot in the USA.

This 1939 crime novel is not for the faint-hearted. George Orwell likened reading the book to diving headfirst into a cesspit. Questions were asked about it in the Houses of Parliament. There were calls for an obscenity trial and a ban. 

no orchids for miss blandish

No Orchids for Miss Blandish

By James Hadley Chase

The controversial novel (published in the US in 1948 as The Villain and the Virgin) tells the story of a bungled diamond heist that ends with the kidnapping of a New York socialite (Miss Blandish) and the murder of her boyfriend. The plot takes an even darker twist when the kidnap gang is slaughtered in a gun battle with rival hoodlums lead by the slobbering sociopath Slim Grissom and his ice-hearted mother. Multiple murders, torture and sexual assault follow as the police and hard-bitten private investigator Dave Fenner try to hunt down the Grissom mob and rescue the unfortunate Miss Blandish.

Given its setting, style and tone, readers of No Orchids for Miss Blandish most likely pictured the book’s author as a streetwise tough guy from the mean alleys of the Big Apple or Chicago. The truth was very different.

James Hadley Chase was a tall mustachioed Englishman with dark, swept-back hair and the raffish dress sense of Sir David Niven. Born Rene Lodge Brabazon Raymond in a smart suburb of London in 1906, he was the son of an army colonel. Educated at a respectable private school, Chase drifted through various jobs until he fell into a role selling books to public lending libraries. One novel, in particular, caught his attention—James M Cain’s steamy noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. “The libraries simply couldn’t get enough of it, Chase later said, “It flew out of the door”.

postman noir books list

The Postman Always Rings Twice

By James M. Cain

The suave Englishman saw an opportunity. He decided to write a book about New York mobsters in the style of Cain and the lurid pulp crime stories he’d devoured in imported US publications like Black Mask and Dime Detective (Known in the UK at the time as “Yank Mags”).

There was only one slight problem—not only was Chase a posh Englishman and he had never even been to America. The would-be writer was, however, undeterred by these minor details. He bought some maps of New York, a dictionary of American slang, and borrowed some reference books on U.S. criminals.

Lifting a plot from William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary and spicing it up with some details from the real-life exploits of Ma Barker and her gang, Chase set to work. Over the course of six weekends, he completed No Orchids for Miss Blandish. By the time it was published, Britain was at war with Nazi Germany and Chase was serving as a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force.

sanctuary

Sanctuary

By William Faulkner

Despite, or perhaps because of, reviews that flagged up the book’s unsavory subject matter (The London Times called it “A sordid concoction of sex and violence”) No Orchids for Miss Blandish was a runaway success from the start. A lurid piece of escapism, it was devoured by a readership whose cities were being pounded by the Luftwaffe and whose armies were being crushed by Hitler’s panzer divisions in France. 

Chase’s publisher lured in readers by plastering a bold claim on the novel’s cover “The toughest book you have ever read!” The ploy worked. No Orchids for Miss Blandish was bought by British servicemen in such numbers military historians have claimed it was “the most widely read book of the Second World War”.

Orwell described the contents of No Orchids for Miss Blandish as “sordid and brutal”. Even now, over eighty years later, reading the moderated version of the novel Chase rewrote in the 1960s, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. The level of violence towards women is stomach-churning.

Yet Orwell also noted that the book is “a brilliant piece of writing with hardly a wasted word, or a jarring note anywhere”. That’s accurate, too. Chase writes in short, stabbing sentences, his paragraphs punctuated by machine gun bursts of dialogue in what appears to be the authentic, snarling voice of the New York underworld. That Chase managed this while sitting in his bedroom in the genteel London suburb of Ealing is genuinely remarkable.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish was turned into a hit West End play in 1942 and a box-office-smash British movie in 1948. It would be filmed in the U.S. by neo-noir master Robert Aldrich in 1971 as The Grissom Gang.

The Grissom Gang (1971)

the grissom gang 1971

Chase went on to write more than seventy fast-paced and violent thrillers, nearly all of them set in America, while living a sedate family life with his wife Sylvia and their children in a quiet village in the mountains of Switzerland. He only visited the U.S. on a handful of occasions and never stayed for long.

Chase had an uncomplicated approach to his life and work. “Money is the biggest driving force in the world,” he said, “You can never have enough of it”. His books sold by the tens of millions. Fifty were made into movies. He died, extremely wealthy, in 1985.