James Hadley Chase
No Orchids for Miss Blandish
London: Robert Hale, 1939
No Orchids for Miss Blandish was published in 1939 and later appeared in British editions by Robert Hale. Two films were made as a result of it (one of them by Robert Altman), and the Corgi/Transworld paperback editions have been sold all over the world. Millions upon millions of this book have been disseminated in pulp, cheap-papered editions in supermarkets and dime store racks. George Orwell was so shocked by it that he penned the famous essay “Raffles and No Orchids for Miss Blandish” as a consequence.
At this date, the provocative thing about this volume is its genuinely transgressive dimension in a world that exhibits multiple frissons. One of the most celebrated strategies in post-modernity is to “shock,” irrespective of quality or content. In the mid-’70s a conceptual artist called Manzoni marketed his own ordure in a beautifully crafted, gilded box. It was wrapped in gold leaf and lapis lazuli (an Ezra Pound favorite). What could be more “anti-social” than this? An Italian-American heiress bought it for $7,000 so that she could boast about it at trendy parties. Nonetheless, Chase’s pulp novel—which he put down on paper in under six weeks—is genuinely beyond the Pale of Dublin.
Most hard-boiled or realistic depictions of criminality end up romanticizing the criminal. They cannot help but do this, since if they’re too brutal then commercial laws are defied. Also, the artistic or representational view of crime is slightly abstracted, Romantic, existential, and darkly macabre. No Orchids flouts all of these in several ways. There is an instinctual understanding of criminality or the lower depths here—quite independently of any socially conservative theories floated down the last century by Lombroso, Eysenck, Koestler, and most of the Behavioral school.
Chase sees lower criminality as ingrained, self-macturated, biological, and innate. There is no notion of social conditioning. Amongst these low and primitive specimens there may be a hierarchy but it is strictly circumscribed to a subsidiary chasm: an underworld. This evaluation is most marked in Chase’s treatment of the Grissom gang. All of them—from the ferocious matriarch Ma Grissom down to her psychopathic son Slim—are ethically dead.
What do we mean by this? Essentially all of them, the criminal women as well, view rape as normal sex, sadistic cruelty as a means to an end, and murder as rough horse-play engaged in for minute-to-minute gain, usually financial. Truly, for nearly all of the criminals in this book, hatred is love—it is the norm in all circumstances.
Quite contrary to the Left humanist view, crime is never considered to be socially conditioned. Inequality and the squalor of the slums have nothing to do with it. The Frankfurt School notion, repeated ad nauseam for over a century now, that criminality is a justified vengeance against a repressive bourgeois order, falls away. Here the naked and primordial order (or disorder) of a colony of killer apes comes into the foreground.
For James Hadley Chase and tough-minded or hard-boiled authors of his ilk see these things as biological tout court. It seems to denote the causation of Frank Norris’ McTeague or von Stroheim’s Greed in its socially Darwinian analysis, but without the literary or artistic pretensions. Indeed, this material has no desire to be considered as literature at all.
The other remarkable element to Chase’s analysis is that—for his predatory troupe—everything is sexually motivated. This fits in very well with the polymorphously perverse testament Psychopathia Sexualis by Count Richard von Krafft-Ebing from the middle of the 19th century. Such an analysis imbues the biological, somatic, or generic origins of primeval crime.
We are not talking about opportunistic criminality here, but the fate of those who were born to be criminal, itself a recognition that criminaloids are a Type. They are born and not made. Rather than an incidental side-line, adolescent fixation, and psychic fluidity, an almost constant erotomania is a semi-permanent feature. No concept of self-restraint even exists.
The core of the novel is the forcing of “dope” or drugs (probably mixtures of morphine and amphetamine) onto Blandish by Ma Grissom. This is so her psychopathic son, Slim, who is impotent and incapable of normal relations, can rape her repeatedly in a sub-pedophiliac way. (Note: one utilizes this term because she is reduced to a child-like dependency here. The Michael Jackson tendencies of Slim Grissom are admitted to by Chase at the novel’s commencement.)
Blandish is the only wholly innocent character in the book. She is virtually a child-like patina onto which the other characters project their inadequacies.
Another salient point is the complete absence of any feminist input: There is no difference between criminaloid men or women in this regard. The two female arch-criminals, Ma Grissom and Anna Bork, behave exactly like their male colleagues in every respect. Moreover, Blandish’s suicide at the end of the book is solely to get away from their influence, even after she’s been released from the gang by the authorities.
In the course of the book’s denouement all of the criminals are exterminated by private detectives, uniformed police (Bulls in cant or criminal jargon), and G-men under Hoover. No mercy is shown; the human rights of the Grissom gang, for example, hardly exist in the consciousness of these law enforcers. Slim Grissom, dead inside and bored (even) with his catalog of molestations and murders, goes down in a hail of Police fire. He expected no better. There is no redemption. Life is a fix. To him, every life is just an evacuation in Life’s toilet bowl. Truly, as he falls to the dirt covered in blood, the result of FBI men bringing him down with machine-gun fire, he knew the meaningless of it all.
It is interesting to note that, despite all of the liberal humanist ’plaints to the contrary, three quarters of all criminals re-offend within a year of release from prison. Also, a half of all crime is committed again and again by the same hard core who exist in open-ended criminal families. They exist in all races, groups, and sub-sets . . . although about a third of all Western crime is committed by immigrants. Yet hardly any contemporary politicians ever mention the reality of criminality to their electorates, preferring to blather about rehabilitation instead.
Perhaps the provocative point to realize is that the Masses share James Hadley Chase’s view of Crime—even as they sate on its presentation as entertainment.
Couldn’t this be construed as an object lesson in pessimistic mass psychology being much more accurate than that of an Enlightenment elite which preaches “reform”? Finally, in ultra-Liberal England, where the death penalty was abolished fifty years back, 82% still support it. They entertain no illusions.
For those who have ears to hear—let them hear!