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No Orchids for Miss Blandish - James Hadley Chase ”Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below Riley’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. Riley drew his lips back. HIs mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of Riley like a horrible malformation. Riley began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up. His weight on the ropes pushed the knife handle up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.
Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes and squinted at Riley.
‘Take your time, Pal, We ain’t in a hurry.’ He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. ‘Ain’t them clouds pretty?’


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Slim Grissom is a psychopath. His tendencies for cruelty manifested themselves when he was still in grade school. He cut up small animals, and tortured little girls. He liked to inflict pain. James Hadley Chase created Slim Grissom. He was a bookseller in London when he decided to write a hardboiled American gangster novel. With the help of an American slang dictionary and books on the criminal world of America he wrote his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, over six weekends. Published in 1939 the book become one of the best-sold books of the decade. It was made into a play and was filmed in 1948 by a British film crew. In 1971 under the name, The Grissom Gang, the American version directed by Robert Aldrich was released. The book hit a nerve.

I’m still picking the GRIT out of my teeth.

Two guys named Riley and Bailey had this idea to steal the Blandish necklace worth fifty thousand dollars. The necklace turns out to be attached to the beautiful daughter of one of the richest men in the state. As tends to happen when stupid people plan a crime everything goes wrong and they end up with the girl and the necklace.

”I know these rich girls,” Bailey complained, his upper lip curling in disgust. “They don’t know what they’re here for.”

Now when two-bit thieves step up to a kidnapping they tend to get over their heads in a hurry. As you have already experienced from the opening quote to this review Slim Grissom and his gang get in on the action. They take the girl and bring her home to Mom. Ma Grissom, the leader of this nefarious organization, is as ugly as Miss Blandish is beautiful.

”From her chair, Ma Grissom soaked Miss Blandish into her brain. She was both transfixed and irritated by her beauty. Ma was a hulking contrast to the girl. Ma Grissom was big, grossly fat and lumpy. Flesh hung in two loose sacks either side of her chin. Her crinkly hair was dyed a hard, dull black. Her little eyes were glittering and as impersonal as glass. Her big floppy chest sparkled with cheap jewelry. She wore a dirty cream colored lace dress. Her huge arms, mottled with veins, bulged through the lace network like dough compressed in a sieve. Physically she was as powerful as a man. She was a hideous old woman, and every member of the gang, including Slim, was afraid of her.”

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Ma Grissom from the 1971 movie

Ma has a plan on how to get the money and get away clean, but Slim unexpectedly throws a monkey wrench into the carefully designed scheme. He decides he wants to keep the girl. Now this takes everyone by surprise because he’s never shown any interest in girls except as creatures weaker than him that he could inflict pain upon. Miss Blandish is beautiful “like something out of a story book” and she is brittle, helpless and most importantly she is in his grasp.

Slim gets his way.

”The naked lamp, swinging in the ceiling, suddenly went out. The darkness came down on her like a smothering blanket. She felt his cold hands turning her on her back so that she lay across the bed, her head hanging over the side. Her hair hung an inch off the dirty carpet. She stared up into the blackness, the tears welling up in her eyes and running down her face. The hot air of the room suddenly rushed over her body and a cruel and impossible weight pinned her to the crumbling sheets. Her resistance was gone, hidden by a heavy cloud that wrapped her brain. She whispered to him a small, panic-ridden voice. ”You’re hurting me...”

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Linden Travers who played Miss Blandish in the 1948 movie version

Yes... at this point in the book I found my hand over my mouth. I was having trouble catching my breath. The cruelty of the moment, of someone who had grown up in this bubble of security finding herself in an impossible situation that she is left shattered unable to even fathom how or why her life took such a sad and sordid turn.

Chase received the attention of the literary establishment in particular by George Orwell who wrote an essay highlighting the virtues of this book. He even compares No Orchids for Miss Blandish with William Faulkner’s work.

”To begin with, its central story bears a very marked resemblance to William Faulkner's novel, Sanctuary. Secondly, it is not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere. Thirdly, the whole book, récit as well as dialogue, is written in the American language; the author, an Englishman who has (I believe) never been in the United States, seems to have made a complete mental transference to the American underworld. Fourthly, the book sold, according to its publishers, no less than half a million copies.”

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James Hadley Chase keeping his writing inspiration close to hand in the form of Mylene Demongeot who starred in a film adaptation of one of his novels.

Orwell makes the case that the book is really all about the pursuit of power.

The book contains eight full-dress murders, an unassessable number of casual killings and woundings, an exhumation (with a careful reminder of the stench), the flogging of Miss Blandish, the torture of another woman with red-hot cigarette-ends, a strip-tease act, a third-degree scene of unheard-of cruelty and much else of the same kind. It assumes great sexual sophistication in its readers (there is a scene, for instance, in which a gangster, presumably of masochistic tendency, has an orgasm in the moment of being knifed), and it takes for granted the most complete corruption and self-seeking as the norm of human behaviour. The detective, for instance, is almost as great a rogue as the gangsters, and actuated by nearly the same motives. Like them, he is in pursuit of "five hundred grand." It is necessary to the machinery of the story that Mr. Blandish should be anxious to get his daughter back, but apart from this, such things as affection, friendship, good nature or even ordinary politeness simply do not enter. Nor, to any great extent does normal sexuality. Ultimately only one motive is at work throughout the whole story: the pursuit of power.

For those of you interested in more about what Orwell had to say about this book here is a link to the essay. http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/Orwell-C.htm

So much happens in this book, there is not a wasted page. It is lurid and filled with tough talk set in a world where compassion is a dirty word. I guarantee you will cringe, and you too will want revenge. Your hands will itch for your own Tommy Gun. You might even dream about pulling the trigger and watching Slim and Ma and Eddie and Flynn and Woppy all dissolve under a hail of bullets.

For another opinion of this book don't miss the excellent review by my friend Mike Sullivan. The Excellent Sullivan Review