Friday, April 05, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Strictly For Cash - James Hadley Chase (Rene Raymond)

(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on March 20, 2009.)

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. (I didn't know at the time of the original post that Chase also ran into plagiarism accusations regarding NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH and William Faulkner's SANCTUARY. Much has been written about this online if you'd care to look it up.) Despite that embarrassment, Chase went on to a long, prolific career as an author of mysteries, thrillers, and noirish 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. (I've actually read several more Chase novels since the time of the original post, and I think there's a very good chance I'll read more in the future.)

1 comment:

OlmanFeelyus said...

Nice review. Yeah, I find Chase sort of weirdly inauthentic and yet at the same time usually quite enjoyable and absorbing. His books are ersatz American pulp yet retain their own kind of energy and desperation with usually a page-turning plot (plus often great covers).