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With blandishments from Slim Vicious.

January 16, 2011 28 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.

 

 

 

 

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