The career of James Hadley Chase began in 1939 with the stunning success of No Orchids for Miss Blandish. This success, along with the timeliness of his style and tone, gave impetus to his continued popularity. Critics have had varied responses to No Orchids for Miss Blandish and his later works. Many judged his first novel unnecessarily violent, with one reader counting forty-eight acts of aggression, from rape to beatings to murder—approximately one every fourth page. Yet this violence clearly appealed to many readers. Later critics regarded Chase’s work as part of the hard-boiled American school initiated by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (and continued by Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald). Others, seeing more depth in his work, suggest that Chase’s novels depict the bleakness of twentieth century America, which must remain unredeemed unless a new social structure is developed. This view, however, is not substantiated by Chase’s own comments on his work.
The violence in Chase’s novels is in fact far from being gratuitous; it is an essential element of the fantasy world of the hard-boiled thriller. This world is no less stylized than the world of the classic British detective story of Agatha Christie. Although the latter portrays an ordered universe cankered by a single act of murder, Chase’s books depict an ordered world held together by raw power, ceaselessly pummeled by the violence of lesser, opportunistic powers. Succeeding in such a society requires that the protagonist be more intellectually, emotionally, and physically powerful than the villains, while in the classic detective story, the hero need only be intellectually and emotionally stronger. This third, physical element, as in the hands of Chase and other members of the hard-boiled school, is another dimension of the same struggle for ascendency between good and evil.
Along the same lines, critics note that Chase’s heroes are often less than upright and trustworthy. Their motivation to fight on the side of good is often nothing more than financial; they are mercenaries in a power-hungry and materialistic world. For example, Mark Girland would never have become a special agent for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) if he had not needed the money. Yet this seemingly callous attitude underscores the quality of life in a post-Darwinian world, where only the fittest survive and where idealism weighs one down, makes one less effective. It must be remembered that in all detective stories, heroes are heroes not because they are ethical but because they are effective and ultimately successful, whether they operate in the locked room or the world at large. Their methods are suited to the environment to ensure victory. Chase’s detectives are loners, answerable only to themselves. Their ethical codes fit those of their society only if that society happens to agree with them.
Such traits in Chase’s heroes are even more apparent when the books are categorized according to the classic characteristics of the American hard-boiled school. American hard-boiled detective stories are a hybrid of the traditional detective story and the mainstream novel. This hybrid results in less formulaic works. Set in American small towns or in the heated worlds of New York City or Los Angeles instead of London or English villages, these novels also feature more rounded characters. As more and more books in the hard-boiled school were written, however, they developed their own...
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