Friday, March 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: Strictly for Cash - James Hadley Chase

If James Hadley Chase (who was actually an Englishman named Rene Raymond) is remembered for anything these days, it’s probably either his notorious, highly successful first novel, NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, or the charges of plagiarism leveled at one of his early novels, BLONDE’S REQUIEM, which some people thought borrowed a little too generously from Raymond Chandler’s FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. One of the people who thought so was Chandler himself, which led to an apology from Chase. Despite that embarrassment, Chase went on to a long, prolific career as an author of mysteries, thrillers, and noir-ish crime yarns.

I read a few books by Chase nearly thirty years ago and don’t remember much about them. A recent conversation with one of the readers of this blog prompted me to try another one, and since I’d recently picked up a copy of STRICTLY FOR CASH at Half Price Books, that’s the one I read. Originally published in England by Robert Hale in 1951, it’s one of numerous Chase titles reprinted in the U.S. by Pocket Books during the Seventies. It’s the story of down-on-his-luck boxer Johnny Farrar (is there any other kind of boxer in books like this?), who’s hitchhiking through Florida when he gets mixed up with a crooked fight promoter (is there any other kind?) and a beautiful but quite possibly dangerous dame (is there any other . . . never mind, you get the idea). So far there’s nothing here you haven’t seen a thousand times before, even though it’s reasonably well-written and enjoyable.

But then Chase pulls a switch and starts playing with time in a way you don’t often see in yarns like this. Ultimately, you may know where he’s going with his story, but you can’t be sure how he’s going to get there, and some of the actual twists are fairly unexpected, too. Like every noir protagonist, Johnny thinks he’s doing the right thing, or at least the only thing he can, but the mess he’s in keeps getting worse and worse until everything comes together in an operatic, almost surreal climax. Along the way, the action scenes are very well-done, and there are some nice lines that made me laugh out loud, like “She had a figure that would make a mountain goat lose its foothold.”

Another charge leveled against Chase is that his books, although set in America, don’t sound American. Well, that’s true in this case, sometimes distractingly so. I’m as much of a supporter of pure texts as the next person, but really, in a book set in America, and published by an American publisher (as these Pocket Books reprints were), a character shouldn’t be pumping petrol and putting something in the boot of the car. It wouldn’t have been too hard for an editor to change those references, and it would have improved the book because sometimes they were so jarring that they knocked me right out of the story.

That said, I enjoyed STRICTLY FOR CASH quite a bit. Chase’s style really keeps the reader turning the pages most of the time. I have several more of his books on hand, and I have no doubt that I’ll read them. And it won’t take me another thirty years, either.

13 comments:

Steve M said...

Great to read your thoughts on a James Hadley Chase book. I used to collect them, think I had them all but about ten. I've long since sold them - something I regret doing. I always found them fast reads full of twists and turns that kept me hooked. Without giving it much thought a couple of my favourites that come instantly to mind were "Hit and Run" and "The Soft Centre".

pattinase (abbott) said...

Always fun to see how the covers change. Usually the original is best IMHO. The artist and writer were in sync with the times.

Juri said...

There are some Chase reviews on my blog - go there and use the search engine. I'm not sure without checking if I've read this, but my view is that Chase actually got better as he went along. His early books are pretty crude.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I've heard a lot about Chase but never read him. Though I've been trying to find a copy of no orchids for some time now.

Frank Loose said...

James ... Great review of this book. I have read about twenty JHC books over the past year. I found them all enjoyable, and many to be excellent. Juri mentions that Chase's early books are pretty crude. If by that he means Chase's writing chops are being developed, i agree. But, there are some critics who think his early books are his best. They had a grit and edge that his later (1950s onward) polished titles lacked. I like them all. The thing to know about these early titles, is after Miss Callaghan Comes To Grief, his fifth book, was tried in British court for being pornographic and obscene, Chases' writing changed. He and the publisher were fined, and Jarrolds (the publisher) revised and edited the early titles so as not to risk further court charges and fines. Archavist wrote that he's been trying to find a copy of No Orchids for some time. They are out there; the problem is MOST are the revised versions (Yes, VERSIONS). It took me almost a year to find my copy of the unedited text. If you read No Orchids, don't settle for anything less.

Unknown said...

I have a couple of boxes of Chase books, some Hale first editions. Earlier, he had another pen-name, Raymond Marshall, that was used by Jarrolds for his books with UK settings. If the "petrol/gas" blunders distract, maybe these are the titles to track down. Most were republished later under the Chase byline in paperback. I agree with your comment that more diligent copy-editing could have been expected for the US editions, and would have helped an otherwise proficient writer's reputation.

James Reasoner said...

Even though I ranted a little about it in the post, I'm actually inclined to give Chase quite a bit of slack about getting all his American terms correct. I know good and well that if I wrote a mystery or thriller set in England, I'd mess up just as much or more.

Juri said...

I posted all my reviews on Chase novels as a separate post on my blog. Check it out. Seems to me now that his best period was mid-fifties to early seventies.

Juri said...

Oops! Only now I noticed I had blocked others from viewing my profile, and I also notice that you may not know what blog I'm talking about. It's Pulpetti down at the bottom.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks, Juri. I had looked these up on your blog and read them individually, but it's nice to have them all in one place.

Unknown said...

Minor hiccups apart, I feel that Chase was one of the most underrated writers of all time. His plots, treatments and characters remain delightful even today. As a tribute, I launched an exclusive website on him in the year: 2004, which is presently the largest and most comprehensive website on Chase, even today. Its available at: [url][b]www.hadleychase.co.nr[/url][/b]Visit and enjoy!!

JOMO said...

Just had a fun day. Found the original "No Orchids" text online in Bulgarian and had Google translate for me. Example follows:

"He leaned back in his chair and cocked his hat over his eyes. He was beginning to worry. Riley died of dough. If happiness is not their smiled, still they had to rob a bank. Bailey was not given much hit banks now o the cops loitered around. These crooks ever walked on tiptoe for stamping your pockets for weapons and so on. Still working really went wrong and they all would remain penniless if not soon something happened."

JOMO said...

Just had a fun day. Found the original "No Orchids" text online in Bulgarian and had Google translate for me. Example follows:

"He leaned back in his chair and cocked his hat over his eyes. He was beginning to worry. Riley died of dough. If happiness is not their smiled, still they had to rob a bank. Bailey was not given much hit banks now o the cops loitered around. These crooks ever walked on tiptoe for stamping your pockets for weapons and so on. Still working really went wrong and they all would remain penniless if not soon something happened."