Invisible Ink: No 126 - James Hadley Chase

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The Independent Culture

Writers suffer different levels of public amnesia. James Hadley Chase's name still sounds familiar to many who have forgotten his books, and there's a reason for that: the name became synonymous with a certain kind of disreputable crime novel. Yet he was born in the Edwardian era. Why, then, do we associate him with something too racy to be kept on the family bookshelves?

Born Rene Brabazon Raymond in London, 1906, the son of a colonel, Chase pursued a career in bookselling before switching sides and becoming a writer. In photographs, he appears the quintessential English author, trimly moustached with Brylcreem-slick hair. But after studying the form very carefully, Chase noticed that there was a growing demand for American crime stories. James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice had been a huge success, so he emulated the style and produced a sensation.

Legends sprang up about the writing of Chase's first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish; it was written in a weekend, on an overnight flight, by an American: stories perpetuated by a man with insider knowledge of the book trade. The tale of Miss Blandish's kidnap and rape caused controversy that translated into smashing success. A genuine one-sitting page-turner, it was unlike anything that had been published by an English author before, and set the tone for books to come, all packed with surprises, non-explicit sex and violence. His white slave trade novel Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief was prosecuted for obscenity, despite being supported by John Betjeman in court (it seems pretty tame now), and legal cases continued to dog him.

Chase wrote some 90 titles, 50 of which were turned into films. The French adored his work, but he failed to have the same effect in the US, where his second-hand sense of location and slang failed to convince. Although happily married for most of his life, he was often criticised for his misogynistic approach to female characters.

After the war, he switched from American gangland and wrote about London's underworld under the pseudonym of Ambrose Grant, finding a new audience, although duplicitous women continued to feature heavily. Joseph Losey directed an appalling 155-minute version of his novel Eve – the greatest disaster of his career – but Chase continued to write a book a year until 1984. House of Stratus has brought him back into print.