Home > 1930, 20th Century, British Literature, Crime Fiction, James Hadley Chase, Noir, Polar > With blandishments from Slim Vicious.

With blandishments from Slim Vicious.

January 16, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase

It starts with a Baghdad Café picture:

It began on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds.

At the junction of the Ford Scott and Nevada roads that cuts Highway 54, the trunck road from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, there stands a gas station and lunchroom bar: a shabby wooden structure with one gas pump, run by an elderly widower and his fat blonde daughter.

For a European, this is the mythical America: a gas station and a lunchroom in the middle of a incredibly hot nowhere. Very cinematographic.

 

A gang of little yobs, Bailey, Old Sam and Riley hang around, broke and up to no good. They desperately need to find a way to “scratch up some money”. When Bailey meets Heinie, the local gossip journalist who also feeds the local gangs with useful tips, he learns that Miss Blandish, the daughter of the richest man of the country, will be given a fifty grand diamond necklace for her 24th birthday. Riley decides they should grab that necklace, though it seems too big a job for them. The grand theft turns wrong and Bailey kills Miss Blandish’s boy-friend. The grand theft becomes a kidnapping.

 

Taking gas on their way to a hiding place, they encounter Eddie and Flynn, members of a rival gang, directed by Ma Grisson. Miss Blandish is so lovely that she catches Eddie’s eye. He enquires after her. Not buying the lies Riley tries to sell him, Eddie tells Ma Grisson about the incident. She recognises Miss Blandish and quickly understands what Riley is up to, though Flynn thinks it highly improbable as Those cheap hoods wouldn’t have the nerve to snatch a purse let alone the Blandish dame!

 

Ma Grisson orders her men to double-cross them and snatch Miss Blandish. Greedy as she is, she immediately imagines how much money she can make out of it, in selling the necklace and cashing the ransom. Orders are promptly executed, Riley’s gang eliminated. Ma Grisson’s gang spread the noise that Riley kidnapped Miss Blandish to lead the Feds in the wrong direction. Heinie tells the cops about his discussion with Riley. He seems the perfect scape-goat.

 

Things look pretty good for Ma Grisson but for two problems. The first one is Anna, Riley’s girl-friend who can’t accept that Riley disappeared and left her behind. The second one is Slim Grisson, the dangerously unbalanced son of Ma Grisson who falls for Miss Blandish. And Slim is vicious. Here starts Miss Blandish’s agony. This book was published in 1939, so the writer is not very explicit on the relationship between Slim and Miss Blandish, but you can guess it is violent and destructive.

 

Three months after the kidnapping, Mr Blandish hires Dave Fenner, a former journalist recently settled as a PI, to find his daughter. And I won’t say more about the plot.

 

I enjoyed reading this book. The characters are well drawn. Of course, Miss Blandish is incredibly beautiful. She does turn men’s heads. She is not seductive though. Her beauty is her fate but it’s hard to decide if it is a gift or a curse. She has more in her than she appears at first sight and her reaction may be mysterious.

 

The Grisson gang made me think of the Daltons, probably because its head is Ma Grisson. She has no compassion or love for anyone but her son Slim. He is her Achilles’ heel. He is what we call now a psychopath. He is unbalanced, has no moral rules and loves killing. Unpredictable and highly dangerous. Eddie thinks It’s women and money that make the world go round and that tells everything your should know about him. I would have thought they make the world go crazy. Flynn, Woppy and Doc are less developed.

 

As a PI, Dave Fenner is a funny, nice and clever fellow. I enjoyed his witty exchanges with his secretary. I’ve seen on Wikipedia that James Hadley Chase only wrote one other book with Dave Fenner as the detective. Too bad, he would have deserved to be developed.

 

The translation dates back to 1946 and uses old fashioned argot words. For me there is a difference between colloquial, slang and argot languages. Colloquial would be spoken language and slang is vulgar. Argot is more a flowery parallel language used by the underground of pimps, small delinquents, whores… It sounds like dialogues of films with Jean Gabin, told in a throaty voice. It fits the genre. However, like for the Bukowski I’ve read recently, the translation is a bit inventive and exaggerates on argot words. Translating “boy friend” by “coquin” instead of “petit ami” sounds strange. Or “nothing” by “nib”, “Get going” by “Décarre!” What kind of words are those? The English doesn’t sound outdated and the French does.

 

Sometimes, the words used sound ridiculous. Here’s an example: “How’s tricks? You look kinda low” is translated by “Et les affaires, ça boume? T’as pas l’air bien brilliant”. I’m not sure a translator would have used “ça boume” nowadays. And I’d rather not speak of changing or translating names. The Lincoln has become a Packard and the Golden Slipper the “Chausson d’Or”.

 

I’d like to read more of James Hadley Chase, but I’ll read him in English. It feels like I’m at a turning-point regarding Anglophone literature. I’m more and more dissatisfied with reading it in translation and yet it does take more time and effort to read in English. Perhaps I should accept to read less books for a while and read in English. I should give myself the time to progressively improve my English vocabulary and later be able to read faster.

 

PS: I’d be grateful, if someone could explain the title of this book to me. Orchids are the symbol of love, luxury and beauty. That’s what Miss Blandish is. An orchid who withers under Slim’s blandishments. It’s the only explanation I found.

 

 

 

 

  1. January 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    In the film, orchids are delivered by a florist to the Blandish house. Miss Blandish rejects them. At the end of the film, orchids fall into the street and are ruined by the rain. I took the title to mean that she makes certain choices (no spoilers here), but according to Lichanos (Journey to Perplexity) there’s no sign of those elements in the book. As I told him, “the dame don’t get no flowers.”

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    • January 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      Lichano’s right. The word “orchid” doesn’t appear in the book.
      “the dame don’t get no flowers” ? No help found in dictionaries, I’m afraid.

      Blast, “flowery” is a faux-ami. It has the opposite meaning in French. I need to change my title.

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  2. leroyhunter
    January 16, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Interesting about the translations here and in Bukowski.

    The set-up you describe at the top of the post (lunchroom in the middle of nowhere) is almost exactly the same as The Postman Always Rings Twice. Incidentally, that’s another title not really explained in the course of the book. The film version has a quite corny final scene tacked on to spell it out for the audience.

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    • January 16, 2011 at 10:36 pm

      On Wikipedia, they say that the titles of his books are explained by the denouement.
      So I feel stupid not to understand it.

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      • January 17, 2011 at 1:02 am

        Well, don’t feel stupid. Maybe ‘orchids’ was a well understood signifier in 1939 so that the irony of the title would be clear. I saw no textual connection to the title. Certainment, Monsieur Guy a la raison: the dame gets no flowers.

        Wow, reading this book in French must be weird. It’s hard for me, and American, to grasp the slang sometimes. (Of course, Chase was a Brit.)

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        • January 17, 2011 at 8:54 am

          I don’t know if Guy is right since I still don’t understand his sentence. I can guess or imagine what it means but I’m not sure.
          I’m just thinking that in Proust (Swann’s Way actually), “faire catleya” — and a catleya is an orchid — was the code between Swann and Odette for love making. There’s a reference to Proust in Chandler, so why not here?

          It was weird and annoying, since I just had the same experience in reading Bukowski. It was hard to grasp the slang in French too, some words weren’t in my French dictionary. I read that Chase bought a dictionary of American slang to write this. Did he slip sometimes and use British words?

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  3. January 17, 2011 at 6:25 am

    That is definitely the type of book I would love but would never ever read in French… As a matter of fact I read occasionally books in French translation but not from the English or German. I don’t think you need to anymore. Usually writing in another language is considered to be more difficult than reading. By the way, an author has normally used at least 80% of his vocabulary during the first 10 pages. Look up some of the words at the beginning and then you will be fine.
    I liked the intro you quote. Of course, that corresponds to my cliché idea… Nourished by movies and the paintings of Edward Hopper, I guess. I wasn’t aware Chase was British. Did he live in the US?
    Your interpretation of the title makes a lot of sense, I think

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    • January 17, 2011 at 9:02 am

      You don’t need to read English books in translation. But I think you’re right, it’s time for me to read in English. I’ve decided not to buy Anglophone literature in translation anymore and to purchase kindle versions when available. It’s the easier way to read in a foreign language. Dual editions aren’t always available and are convenient for theatre (Shakespeare is great in dual edition) or for poetry but not really for novels.

      I think Chase lived in Great Britain. I hadn’t thought of Edward Hopper, but you’re right. Have you been to the Hopper exhibition in Lausanne last year ? It was good.

      PS : So far, the best translation of crime fiction I’ve seen is Boris Vian translating The Big Sleep.

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      • January 17, 2011 at 9:57 am

        No, I even miss exhibitions in Basel and we always have a few great ones. Must remedy that… I have a shocking revelation… I used to work in a gallery for almost 10 years! Life no 2. I have a book on Hopper and it also speaks of his influence on movies and books… I really want to read this.

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  4. January 17, 2011 at 7:12 am

    I’m going to have to move this one closer to the top of the list of those books to be read soon. I’m becoming more curious.

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    • January 17, 2011 at 9:03 am

      I hope you read it soon, I’d like your opinion about it. (It’s not very long). I wish I could see the film version.

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      • January 18, 2011 at 1:26 am

        The dame don’t get no flowers.

        Ok: I got myself into this one.

        Some dates get chocolates, roses, a nice restaurant, and others don’t.

        The dame don’t get no flowers:
        Bad grammar on purpose to say that she’s bascially not going to get all the things that she ‘should’ have got in life: wedding, honeymoon, etc. Are the orchids (expensive fragile flowers) symbolic for the choices she makes?

        If I said: the dame don’t get no flowers,

        I would take it that ‘the dame’ doesn’t get the ‘nice’ treatment accorded to a ‘lady’. (we are talking gangster here)

        Does that help? Or did I make it worse?

        Do you have that expression “Kid glove treatment”?

        The film was just released on DVD a while back.

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        • January 18, 2011 at 8:48 am

          Yes it helps, thank you. The French expression for “kid glove treatment” is “prendre des gants” or “prendre avec des pincettes.” Now I get it. And I think you’re right about the meaning of the title. Ouf, I finally understood.

          Don’t make me feel like I’m unbearably slow or I might be tempted to retaliate by leaving you comments in French, with loads of slang words and expressions so French you wouldn’t understand them, were you to dig in 3 dictionaries or so. It would get on your nerves to leave it unsolved and you’d end up asking for explanations. 🙂

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  5. January 17, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    What a marvellous opening section. I love that quote. So utterly visual. As you say it’s right in the heart of mythic America.

    Oddly enough I’ve been looking at Chase recently so this is extremely timely. It sounds like the sort of thing I really enjoy from time to time, so I’ll definitely be taking a note of it.

    Using a dictionary of American slang is odd. Those rarely work that well. It’s hard for a dictionary to capture in an up to date way something as fluid as slang. I wonder if this ever reflected a real America, or to go back to your opening if it was always the America of European myth.

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    • January 17, 2011 at 9:53 pm

      Yes using a slang dictionary to write is really risky. You don’t really weigh what you’re saying. However, I’d love to have a British/American vs French slang dictionary. It would help me.

      I think it was more the America he dreamt of than the real America, but I might be wrong. This book was published in 1939, the difference between Europe and America must have been even wider than nowadays.

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  6. January 18, 2011 at 2:44 am

    I’d say Guy has nailed it. No orchids for her…just rape, drugs, and suicide. Tsk, tsk…

    Still, I read that the book was released in several versions – perhaps an explicit reference was lost along the way.

    Also, the title as Guy construes it puts a little different spin on the story, doesn’t it? I mean, you know going into it, before you open the book, that Miss Blandish is “in for it.” Its meaning is up front, not in the denoument. It’s fated – very noir.

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  7. January 18, 2011 at 2:49 am

    BTW, it is funny to me that the opening is “mythical America.” To me, it’s a cliche. A good one, and I love it, truly, but a cliche. I feel the same way about Hopper’s urban scenes.

    Maybe I’m suffering from over exposure, like the guy who went to see Hamlet and complained about all the cliches in the dialog. On the other hand, what I like about film noir is that there is always a bit of distance between the portrayal of urban alienation and the viewer. It’s just a movie – how seriously should we take it after all? The style carries us along and makes it…entertainment. I like that. Hopper’s picture of the night owls that is so popular strikes me as almost wallowing in it.

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    • January 18, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Well “mythical” means it doesn’t exist, right? Encore que. I’ve seen “mythical” or “clichéd” America when we drove from Barstow to Palm Springs last August. In the middle of nowhere, a mail box, lost among sand and cactus. And we thought the poor wooden houses were clichés but apparently not. We even wondered how people got electricity and water where they lived.

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      • January 18, 2011 at 3:58 pm

        Should have driven a bit further to the Salton Sea. You’d have been in deep America-neo-noir territory.

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        • January 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm

          Those were landscapes like the ones you can see in the film When you’re strange : Jim Morrison in the desert.

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      • January 18, 2011 at 9:07 pm

        They probably don’t…

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        • January 18, 2011 at 10:45 pm

          They don’t have water or electricity ? That’s what we feared, we couldn’t see any wire for electricity. We also wondered where they’d go to buy food, the closest town was pretty far. Living there must be a nightmare. (a hell, rather, considering the heat)

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  8. January 18, 2011 at 2:51 am

    Mythical America to a European, I meant to say…

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  9. January 18, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Book Around the Corner: I saw the film first, and of course it had the explicit-cannot-be-missed Orchid references. I was surprised when Lichanos told me that these scenes were absent from the book, and that forced me to think beyond the film. No meanie comments from me to you on any score.

    And Lichanos: did you see the documentary about the Salton Sea yet?

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  10. December 19, 2012 at 2:37 am

    Emma: Just started this today.

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    • December 19, 2012 at 9:13 am

      Great, I’m looking forward to your review.

      Like

  1. August 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm

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