There’s a tendency to think that British crime fiction of the past was all spinster sleuths finding obscure poisons under the doilies.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Certainly, we have an honourable pedigree in the gentler side of crime fiction (if multiple murders can be called gentle) but we also have a fine back catalogue set in the back alleys, where a knitting needle was only useful as a weapon and the only little grey cells were those decorating the walls.
Back in 1978 I lived in Strathbungo, a sedate little grid of streets on Glasgow’s south side lined with terraces designed by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.
Just down the road, within walking distance if I was feeling energetic, is the Citizen’s Theatre and during the couple of years I lived there I saw a few plays.
One of them was NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH.
It was condemned at the time for its racy nature, the Cits then often cocking a snook at the city’s idea of good taste.
It starred the always brilliant David Hayman and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, none other than Pierce Brosnan. This was, of course, not only pre Bond but pre Remington Steele.
Ciaran Hinds, another fine actor, was also in the cast.
Anyway, with its mix of violence, sex and incest, it had prurient tongues wagging.
Naturally, it was a big hit.
Me? I was blown away.
I didn’t know something arty could be so visceral, so powerful, so bloody entertaining.
Every time someone fired a gun on stage, the entire audience jumped. We were used to hearing gunfire on telly and in the pictures, but in the live theatre the effect was electrifying.
The book on which it was based, written by James Hadley Chase, was equally as controversial when it was released in 1939. It was, in fact, labelled ‘degenerate’ and ‘immoral.’
It was also an example of what we call today Brit Noir.
The son of an army doctor, Chase was born Rene Lodge Brabazon Raymond, and you can understand why he opted for a pen name.
He didn’t set out to be a writer. He sold encyclopaedias (for younger readers, think Google with pages you turn with your fingers) and then took a job with a book wholesalers.
Seeing the kind of scratch generated by hard-boiled exemplars like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler – not to mention the home grown thick ear books of Peter Cheyney – Chase decided to try his hand.
Inspired by a news item he’d spotted about the kidnapping of an American heiress, and coming up with the title whilst soaking in the tub, according to publishing legend Chase wrote No Orchids in six weeks.
Sometimes it takes me that long to switch on the computer.
Certainly, crime novels then were somewhat more svelte than they are today, but still…
He set his story in America, even though he’d never been, using an atlas (younger readers, think Google Maps in a hardback cover) and travel guides (think Tripadvisor).
It was, to say the least, sensational.
There are murders, floggings, torture, rape, and, when things became dull, some sexual deviancy thrown in. (Younger readers, think Game of Thrones with slouch hats and cigarettes).
NOTE: I’m not condoning the content, I’m merely telling you what it was.
He shifted half a million copies in a dear old Blighty then in the throes of World War Two. George Orwell was not a fan, though, and said the book’s success was ‘brought about by the mingled boredom and brutality’ of the conflict.
That may be true, but Chase went on to pen another 80 sex and sadism thrillers under various pseudonyms. They rejoiced in titles like THE DEAD STAY DUMB, YOU’RE LONELY WHEN YOU’RE DEAD and THIS WAY FOR A SHROUD.
He was something of a hit across the pond, where some of his books were retitled. And all that meant he was comfortably well off, thank you very much. When he died in 1984, he was living in Switzerland and that ain’t cheap, bub.
He did almost come a cropper in 1942, when he and his publisher were charged with publishing an obscene libel in the book MISS CALLAGHAN COMES TO GRIEF, which dealt with enforced prostitution in St Louis. The Director of Public Prosecutions said it was ‘pornography of the vilest type.’ Despite support from heavyweight literary figures, they lost and were each fined £100, over £3,200 in today’s money.
Curiously, another crime book had also fallen foul of that law and its author and publisher appeared on the court lists at the same time. That’s something I may deal with another time.
Although hit in the wallet, what may have been worse was when Chase was also forced to apologise publicly and in print to Raymond Chandler, who claimed he’d lifted sections from one of his stories for a book.
In the 1960s, Chase found himself in Chandler’s position when ‘an incident’ involving a fanatical Nazi general in one of his books was borrowed by Hans Helmut Kirst for Night of the Generals. The writ hit the fan and Chase was acknowledged in the book and in the 1967 film version, which starred Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.
Speaking of films, 50 of his titles were filmed. No Orchids was filmed twice – once in the 1940s in Britain and once, as The Grissom Gang, in the early 1970s by Robert Aldrich, who was no stranger to hard-boiled fiction.
Britain has a fine tradition of noir and Chase, though not a great writer, deserves his place in it.
And as a footnote to my Citizens theatre experience, I had my own brush with that theatre some years later.
But that’s another story.
Douglas Skelton will be discussing the legacy of Brit Noir at Bloody Scotland with authors Nick Triplow, Harry Brett and Cathi Unsworth.