“From now on, you’re going to wear mink, baby.”
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) by James Hadley Chase has been on the reading radar for some time. I saw the film version in 2010 and then Emma, from Book Around the Corner reviewed the book here. After seeing the film version, and reading the controversy about the book, I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. The book is far darker, far more unpleasant, so if you like your crime books bleak, nasty and downright unsavoury, then you might want to check out No Orchids for Miss Blandish.
The story begins with a couple of cheap crooks, Bailey and Old Sam, stopping at a gas station on the way to Kansas City. Old Sam is sleeping, so Bailey, worried about money and even contemplating robbing a bank if things don’t look up soon, steps inside the diner for a Scotch. Bailey and Old Sam form an ad-hoc gang with a sleaze ball named Riley as the brains of the operation. It’s slim pickings for these trio of bottom-feeders. The lucrative jobs are too big and complex for their slipshod 3 man operation, and that leave the petty jobs that don’t yield much. It seems to be a lucky break when tipster fat Heinie, a “leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side” waddles into the diner and mentions that multi millionaire Blandish is throwing a party for his daughter’s 24th birthday. Her gift will be the family diamonds and after the party at the Blandish mansion, she’ll move on to the Golden Slipper nightclub with her boyfriend, Jerry MacGowan. Bailey keys onto the fact that the couple and the diamond necklace will be alone and vulnerable. Heinie warns him off any thoughts of knocking off the necklace as Bailey and Riley ”aren’t big enough to handle a job like that.” But to Bailey, the job sounds like a cinch: Waylay a society dame and her cream puff escort then grab the diamonds. Simple.
Bailey takes the idea to Riley, the head of the gang, and a man in Bailey’s opinion who spends “too much time in the sack with that broad of his,” a cheap, mouthy striptease dancer named Anna. The plan is to go to The Golden Slipper while Miss Blandish is slumming and then follow the couple, waylaying them along the route, and making a fast smash and grab. But the plan goes wrong and morphs into a kidnapping, and then bad luck sends members of the vicious Grisson gang into their path….
The Grisson gang, considered by other crooks as “good third-raters,“ is led by Ma Grisson–a tough as nails, “big, grossly fat and lumpy“ woman who sounds as clever, mean and evil as the FBI fabricated-for-the-media version of Ma Barker. (This can’t be coincidence as the author, James Hadley Chase was supposedly influenced by the tale of the Barker Gang when he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish.) Ma Grisson sees the Blandish heiress as means of becoming the “richest, the most powerful, and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City.” In other words, the Blandish girl is a ticket out of the small-time, and with a prize like that Ma Grisson is willing to take some risks.
Some of the novel includes the dynamics between the various gang members. There’s an unlicensed alcoholic doctor, “Doc” who comes in handy when the boys need stitching up, Eddie who “wouldn’t have been bad looking, but” for the cast in his eye, Flynn, Woppy and finally Ma’s son, the dysfunctional, psychotic, and none too clean Slim Grisson, the man with a taste for knives.
He was tall, reedy and pasty-faced. His loose, half-open mouth, his vacant, glassy eyes made him look idiotic, but a ruthless, inhuman spirit hid behind the idiot’s mask.
Slim Grisson’s background was typical of a pathological killer. He had always been lazy at school, refusing to take the least interest in book work. He began early to want money. He was sadistic and several times had been caught torturing animals. By the time he was eighteen, he had begun to develop homicidal tendencies. By then, his mental equipment had degenerated. There were times when he would be normal to the point of being quick-witted, but most times he behaved like an idiot.
Slim is barely held in check by his mother who “refused to believe that there was anything wrong with him.” So there’s an inherent, festering sore in the gang’s power structure: Slim is out-of-control and yet his mother refuses to reign him in. It’s with the introduction of Miss Blandish into the equation that the power balance within the gang changes.
More gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops.
The novel’s violence is swift, merciless and sadistic. The 1948 film version of the novel played like some sort of deranged love story, and that glamoured up what’s really at play here. After all, there are some things worse than death….
James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was British but chose to set this, his first novel in America, a country he’d yet to visit. Now to the question of versions: Chase revised the novel in 1961, and I have two versions: a kindle version and a print version which are quite different. The kindle version, originally from Harlequin books, refers to television and Slim being a television addict (“He never grew tired of watching the moving pictures on the twenty-one inch screen.“) The kindle version says 1939 on the front but the Harlequin edition was published in 1951. The out-of-place reference to televisions in the 1930s is absent in my Bruin Crimeworks edition, and the Amazon description of this book says it’s the 1961 updated version, but inside the book there’s a page “note to the reader“ which says that this version is “yet a further update” to the 1961 update. So how many versions are there?
The revised print version from Bruin Crimeworks is even nastier (read “embellished,” and here’s just a taste–a scene which isn’t so detailed in the earlier kindle version. BTW, I blotted out the victim’s name in order to not spoil the plot suspense for potential readers:
“I’m giving it to you there,” Slim said, pricking the shuddering flesh with his knife. “Right in the guts, *****, and you’re going to take a mighty long time to croak. I know just where to stick you.”
“Come on, Slim! You wouldn’t do that to me. I’m a stand up guy, don’t I keep telling you? You know me. You ain’t gonna cut me like that. No! Slim! …No!… For Christ’s sake…Jesus, God…Don’t do me, Slim!”
Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below *****’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. ***** 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 ***** like a horrible malformation. ***** began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him 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 *****.
“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?”
And here’s the same scene in the kindle version:
Slim looked over at ***** who shut his eyes. A horrible croaking sound came from him. Slim cleaned his knife by driving it into the ground. The he straightened.
“*****…” he said softly.
****** opened his eyes.
“Don’t kill me, Slim.” he panted. “Gimme a break! Don’t kill me!”
Slim grinned. The moving slowly through the patch of sunlight, he approached the cringing man.
The book has been made into two film versions: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and The Grissom Gang (1971). Pick your poison.