Tuesday, December 7, 2010
James Hadley Chase was one of the more successful -- and notorious -- writers of crime fiction in England during the 1930s and 1940s. He was born Rene Brabazon Raymond in London in 1906, the son of Colonel Francis Raymond, of the Indian Army. In accordance with his father's wishes, Raymond was supposed to pursue a career in science. But after a considerable amount of education, he abandoned the family home at age 18, striking out on his own. Over the next few years, across the 1920s, he earned a living working in bookstores and selling encyclopedias, among other activities. A marriage in 1933 gave him a wife and son to provide for, and may have spurred him to try his hand in the potentially more lucrative field of writing. He read the 1934 James M. Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and decided that crime fiction offered some real possiblities. It wasn't long after this that he seized upon the story of American criminal Ma Barker and her gang, which had captivated journalists every bit as much as tales of John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker, and Clyde Barrow. With an American slang dictionary to assist him, Chase turned these sources of inspiration into No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), credited to Rene Raymond and authored over a period of six weekends. The book also owed a considerable amount to William Faulkner's notorious novel Sanctuary, the first of several instances in which he would be accused of deriving his work from better-established works of fiction.
The novel took the London literary establishment by storm, with its vivid accounts of violent crime and lustful sexuality, especially the attraction between the kidnap victim and her captor. Most establishment critics -- author/critic Graham Greene was a notable exception -- were appalled at the book, but it did become a best-seller. No Orchids for Miss Blandish (which was also published as The Virgin and The Villain) might have been even more controversial had it not been for the fact that Raymond published two further crime novels that year, which only further enflamed critical opinion, and the outbreak of the Second World War, which created a new set of crises and priorities for British society. Raymond joined the Royal Air Force as a commissioned officer, rising to the rank of squadron leader (equivalent of a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces) and serving in an administrative capacity. Among his other activities, he edited the RAF Journal.
The Second World War slackened Raymond's fiction output, but despite the relative handful of works he issued, he remained a popular figure, and No Orchids for Miss Blandish became one of the biggest selling novels in England during this period. It took on a further life of its own as a play on London's West End, which starred Robert Newton as Slim Grisson and became an equally controversial motion picture, produced by Renowned Films.