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.