Posted by olvlzl.
Hearing that you should endeavor to broaden your experience as you age in order to keep the brain healthy, I picked up my first real hard-boiled, tough guy novel about this time last summer. Rescued from the pulp bin, it was a 1952 paperback of crumbling, acidified paper. The cover says “Kiss My Fist The saga of a racket big shot who lived, loved and died the hard way!”. The cover* illustrates this with a hard looking, if believably proportioned, man socking a woman, unbelievably decolee, on the chin. It wasn’t these endearing charms that kept me from putting the book down and washing my hands, however, it was the name of the author, James Hadley Chase. How could that name find its way onto Kiss My Fist? A tough guy with three last names? In researching this post I discovered that Chase was not the flower of the Eastern establishment I’d expected to write about, but a Brit who had a weakness for American tough guy fiction and who quite brilliantly relied on a dictionary of American slang to refine his dialogue. His adoption of such a respectable sounding name was certainly a career move, his birth name being Rene Brabazon Raymond. I can’t see the English language, tough-guy audience going for Rene Barbazon Raymond. My research said that “Kiss” wasn’t the original name of the novel, which entered 1939 England as “The Dead Stay Dumb”. I’m not sure what sociological significance there might be to the name change. Maybe they already had the cover art here and, given it’s undoubted qualities, they required an excuse to use it.
Looking at the notes I made last year maybe another reason for not putting it down was that this was the first thing I read in it:
Clem Gibson was someone in the town. He ran the bank, he owned a car, and he changed his shirt twice a week.
Though it made me smile for the next two days, this side-of-the-mouth passage is the best thing in the book. If you’re afraid this post will be a plot spoiler you can breathe easy. Ruining the book would be an act of supererogation, the author having saved anyone the trouble. It’s not the kind of book you so much read as skim in morbid fascination. An example, it is not to be regretted that I can’t give you the entire fight scene between Myra and Fanquist (called a “two-timin’ floozie”, though in the context of the book you wonder what makes either quality worth mentioning). It’s about the longest scene in the book covering more than two pages and in my copy it appears by far the most thumbed part of the book. Make of that what you will. I haven’t had such a bad time since I began some research into violent porn for a post I’ve shelved indefinitely.
Recently, while looking at something else, I happened on a masterpiece of book review by George Orwell** of another of Chase’s books from that era, No Orchids For Miss Blandish . The plot summary given in the review makes it sound as if “No Orchids” was an even less gratifying, if more widely read book. Orwell pointed out that Chase found enormous popularity during The War by the glorification of violence. Though the plot is largely accomplished through overtly sexual violence (rape) both the review and “Kiss” make me wonder if the all of the violence among all gender combinations didn’t achieve some kind of general gratification through horror and exercise of power. Orwell contrasted the lack of moral values in “No Orchids” with the minimal morality of the hero in the novel ‘Raffles’***. The contrast between the older kind of villain and the heros of Chase’s books would seem to be that there wasn’t even the pretense of morality in the modern age. He quite rightly calls the results “fascistic”. Fascism through generalized violence is the result of life without moral restraints, all activities have the exercise of power as their only motivation.
It’s worth pointing out that Orwell was talking about print in the review. TV, the movies and the web have had the effect of speeding up the delivery system of these drugs, something that Orwell anticipated in his other writings. You wonder what he would have made of 24 and the successor tough-guy genre in which the amoral thugs*** were no longer crime figures but a policy branch of governments. How did this tough guy genera relate to its cousin, hard-boiled secret agents climbing over a pile of bodies in service to the corporate state? Maybe we should yearn for, an assumption that the murderous thugs were outlaws instead of on the government payroll. Maybe we should also remember with fondness a time when the consumers of tough guy junk could master a sentence of more than six words. Read Orwell’s review, he says a lot more than I can, though I think he was a bit too hard on American pop culture as compared to Britains.
It would be most useful to know who would have kept Chase in business, he published dozens of pulp volumes right up into the 80s. A heck of a lot of stuff was published and made into movies. Someone was buying it. I can’t imagine his readership consisted of women. It must have been written with a male audience in mind. Would they have been Roosevelt Democrats? Supporters of Churchill? Would they have been the type who were about to fight Hitler? How would they vote after the war? Somehow I can’t picture them as enthusiastic supporters of civil rights or equality nor can I picture them as supporting women’s rights. I can imagine fans of Harvey Mansfield reading it for enjoyment though it might give V. D. Hanson nightmares. There is a surprising amount of J. H. Chase presence on the web, apparently he is very popular with a particular kind of audience. Wiki says he’s very popular in Africa, Asia, France, Italy and the last days of the Soviet Union.
Note: From experience I know I’d better point out that this isn’t a call for government censorship, that would be entirely unconstitutional. That doesn’t mean you have to like this kind of junk and to censor yourself in talking about it. I’d never give up the right to make fun of it and to tease its audience.
* You can judge for yourself. If you look find it notice that the cover carries the plain lie that it isn’t recycled material, though, I suppose, they might mean it’s printed on virgin paper. I had seen the original cover on line last year but can’t find the link anymore. There is this alternative modern cover of special interest to readers of this blog. I agree completely with this description given at that site.
Reading The Dead Stay Dumb by James Hadley Chase. The Finnish translation has one of the most awful covers I've ever seen - I'll post it here later. It's an early Chase, from 1939, and while it's pretty wild, it's also somewhat moronic. There's no real plot, no real characters - all the killings and counterfeits just happen almost out of nowhere. Maybe it's surrealism. (I know that the French are enthusiastic for Chase.)
Surrealism? No. Sous-realism would be a better word for it.
** Now that the centennial fad for Orwell has passed and Hitchens has changed getaway vehicles, maybe we can safely go back and look at some of Orwell’s occasional pieces, which I’ve always thought contained his best work.
*** Some here will know I’ve got a personal interest in Raffles.
**** Just this morning on NPR there was a report about the latest in the equivalent in slasher movies.