Shocking! Sensational!

Books

Writers suffer different levels of public amnesia. Chase’s name sounds familiar to many who have forgotten his books, perhaps because it distantly exists in the public memory, and there’s a reason; Chase became synonymous with a certain kind of disreputable crime novel, yet he was born in the Edwardian era. Why, then, did we associate him with something too racy to be kept on the family bookshelves?

Born Rene Brabazon Raymond in London, 1906 (I love these Edwardian middle names!), the son of a colonel, Chase pursued a career in bookselling before switching sides and becoming a writer. In photographs he appears the quintessential English author, trimly moustached with Brylcreem-slick hair – his hobbies included opera and Meccano models – but after studying the form very carefully, Chase noticed there was a growing demand for American gangster stories. James M Cain’s ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ had been a huge success, so he emulated the style and produced a homegrown sensation.

Legends sprang up about the writing of Chase’s first novel, ‘No Orchids For Miss Blandish’; it was written in a weekend, on an overnight flight, by an American, by a man with insider knowledge of the book trade.

Along with ‘James Hadley Chase’, ‘Raymond Marshall’, ‘René Raymond’ and ‘Ambrose Grant’ were all pen-names. He was one of those authors who couldn’t write fast enough. By the 1960s, the Chase name had become the dominant brand and was used for most of Raymond’s output when mass-market paperback editions of his backlist began to flood the book shops.

The tale of Miss Blandish’s kidnap and rape caused controversy that translated into smashing success. A genuine one-sitting page-turner, it was unlike anything that had been published by an English author before, and set the tone for books to come, all pacily packed with surprises, (non-explicit) sex and violence. His white slave trade novel ‘Miss Callaghan Comes To Grief’ was prosecuted for obscenity despite being supported by John Betjeman in court (it seems incredibly tame now), and legal cases continued to dog him.

Chase recognised that there was no shame in admiring the great American pulp writers. He produced some ninety titles, fifty of which were turned into films. The French adored his work but he failed to have the same effect in America, where his second-hand sense of location and slang failed to convince (just as his films cast British actors with terrible stateside accents).

Although happily married for most of his life, he was frequently criticised for his misogynistic approach to female characters. After the war he switched from American gangland and wrote about the London underworld under the pseudonym of Ambrose Grant, finding a new audience, although duplicitous women continued to feature heavily.

Joseph Losey directed an absolutely appalling 155-minute version of his novel ‘Eve’ – the greatest disaster of his career, but Chase continued to write a book a year until 1984. Is he readable now? It’s hard to see what all the fuss was about, but he marked a sea-change in our attitude to pulp paperbacks. After this the gates stood wide.

9 comments on “Shocking! Sensational!”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    ‘After this the gates stood wide.’ How often is there a justification, other than titillation, for explicit sex scenes in a novel? What was gained by filling in those dot dot dot spots in the narration? Every once in a while I feel like lashing out at these passages. Violence is, however, often a quick way to establish character, motive, or emotion.
    Those odd first and middle names are often useful to genealogists as they are sometimes the maiden name of a mother or grandmother. (Isn’t working in my personal family tree, though.)

  2. Roger says:

    George Orwell’s essay comparing ‘No Orchids For Miss Blandish’ with E.W. Hornung’s Raffles stories has probably done most to keep Chase’s name known.

  3. Bob Low says:

    He was one of those writers whose books were marketed in the sixties and seventies as being much racier than they actually were. I remember from my childhood and adolescence that bookshops and newsagents seemed to stock rows of his paperbacks – I think he was published by Corgi -and the covers always featured a scantily clad model, either looking sultry or threatened. My dad once noticed me gawking at one of them, with the cover model posing in what looked to the fourteen year old me like a particularly lascivious way, for a book of his called ‘Try This One for Size’. Dad then pointed out to me, ‘When that was first published, it had a picture of a wreath on the cover’.

  4. eggsy says:

    Another (near) Edwardian name to glory in was the son of Marjorie Bowen, also of Admin’s forgotten authors stable. Athelstan Charles Ethelwulf Long has recently passed away at the quite decent age of 100. I’m impressed by the inconsistency of modernising the initial aesc as A and E in the first and third names. And at having a total of eight syllables and twenty nine letters. Actually, jealous, although form-filling must have been more tiresome.

  5. Roger says:

    For really glorious Victorian/Edwardian names, eggsy, you ought to look up the children of the Rev, Ralph William Lyonel Tollemache-Tollemache, especially those born in his second marriage to a Spanish lady, Dora Cleopatra Maria Lorenza de Orellana, whose own names helped to set his imagination free.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Mercy. I must tell one of my instructors about those names. He used to tell us that leaving 26 letter spaces in your stencil for marking name spaces on certificates was enough. The loss of the aesc (is that what you call that ae combination sound?) I remember when “encyclopaedia” was spelt that way so the loss is in living memory, even though those names are Anglo Saxon and the encyclopaedia is Greek.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    How about Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno?

  8. eggsy says:

    Good lord. Thank you for that, Roger. I’m not sure about Wentworth as a girl’s name. He had a thing about country houses, obviously. And a thing about the Plantagenets. But when you start as Tollemache-Tollemache, there’s only one way to go.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    If anyone asks me why the patron saint of Ambient Music stuck with the name ‘Brian’ instead of something more esoteric, or ‘Rock!’, then I tell them his full name.
    Being a ‘Brian’, or ‘Bryan’ has never been a handicap to being ‘Rock!’, though – look at:
    Bryan Ferry, the other one in Roxy Music
    Brian Johnson, the voice of AC/DC
    Brian May, astronomer, and guitarist of Queen
    Brian James, original guitarist of The Damned
    Bryan Gregory, guitarist of The Cramps
    Brian Jones, creator of The Rolling Stones
    Brian Wilson, of The Beach Boys.

Comments are closed.