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Underground Reading: No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase

No Orchids for Miss BlandishNo Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase, was first published in 1939. An 'immediate success' (I'm stealing from the Publisher's Note here), it was quickly published all over the world and turned into a play, a movie, and the subject of a review by George Orwell (and now Pornokitsch!).

Interestingly enough, Chase then rewrote the book for 1961 edition, believing that the dialogue was 'outmoded' and needed to be updated for a new generation of readers. My copy (pictured here - such a beauty!) is from the updated edition.

The story is fairly simple. A beautiful young heiress is kidnapped as the result of a robbery gone horribly awry and held hostage by a Midwestern gang (GO CHIEFS!). The stage-setting and the kidnapping take up the first half of the book. The second half introduces the mandatory Private Eye and details the search for the missing woman.

Reviewing the revised (1960's) edition feels a little unfair. To be up front about it, I wasn't greatly impressed by this book (I wonder if Orwell was?), but I'm not sure if the real culprit is an ill-advised rewrite.

The set-up is, by far, the best part of the book. The first pages stroll along at a leisurely pace, introducing a group of surprisingly unsympathetic down-on-their-luck thieves. Then, with a snapping sound, everything accelerates - sweeping the reader along on a wave of mayhem. The robbery goes wrong, resulting in a kidnapping, which immediately turns sour as well. The thieves are replaced by an even more unsympathetic lot of murders - following the lead of a semi-retarded psychopath named 'Slim'. Then, just when the tension is becoming exquisitely unbearable, the book abruptly slams on the brakes.

Then, with little notice, we're given the second half of the book -  beginning with, essentially, 'Three months later...'. A stereotypical Private Eye with his stereotypical lovelorn secretary and his stereotypical relationship with the stereotypical local cops is given the stereotypical dead-end job. We follow Fenner (without ever actually learning anything about him - or actually liking him) as he meanders backwards through the complications of the first half of the book - unwinding the yarn-ball of villainy.

The problem is, we don't actually care all that much. The gripping, twisted bits are all taking place away from the action. While Fenner blunders around, rediscovering everything that the reader already knows, the relationship between Slim, the kidnapped Miss Blandish and the rest of his gang is now a (pardon the pun) closed book. Interesting things are definitely happening - Slim is falling in love, Miss Blandish is going crazy and the gang is rotting away from within. But we're only presented with those conclusions at the close of the book - generally when someone says, 'Hey, that Miss Blandish. She's gone crazy.' So why don't we get to see that, instead of watching Fenner carry on the inevitable banter with his uninteresting secretary?

The parallel structure of the two halves doesn't even feel intentional, or particularly well-crafted. Fenner doesn't delicately retrace the ground in an existential sort of way - he just kind of blunders through the PI tropes until he hits the inevitable conclusion. Rather than some grand literary scheme, it seems like the author called a reader focus group ("Less tension! More strippers!") and was eager to cover off the shopping list before the book's gruesome conclusion.

Everything picks up a bit at the end with some set piece action sequences - something between John Woo and a French sex farce. Lots of secret doors and people passing in the night. Plus, of course, machine guns. Or 'Thompsons'. Bizarrely - despite the rewrite to update the language, we still have 'the Grissom mob firing their Thompsons and throwing pineapples'. Whereas in a 1938 novel, this wouldn't stand out, in one updated for 1961, the original words now feel contrived.

A few interesting characters bounce around the sidelines. Although Miss Blandish is merely an object, two other women run away with the novel. Ma Grissom - the brains behind the 'Grissom mob' is a captivating fiend - the Baba Yaga of the criminal underworld. The other, a 'gun-moll' named Anna begins as a femme fatale assassin, who comes close to solving the crime on her own. After the three month jump, however, we find that she's perplexingly degenerated into a brainless stripper ('fan dancer').

I'm actually quite sorry I didn't like this more. I hold out hopes of finding one of the original editions and seeing what the fuss was about. But, for now, no praise for Miss Blandish.

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