Even though I have completist tendencies, I seriously doubt that I will read all the books written by British author James Hadley Chase (1906-1985). Chase whose real name was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond wrote under a number of pseudonyms, and there’s an extensive list of over 90 of his novels on Wikipedia. With that many books, that leaves the reader to select a) copies that are still available and b) titles that appeal. So with that in mind, it should be easy to guess why I picked: There’s a Hippie on the Highway, a title I couldn’t resist. The book is as strange as it sounds.
After three years in Vietnam, paratrooper Harry Mitchell returns home. He has a job waiting for him in New York but decides to spend the summer in Florida. Perhaps he’s too restless to settle into the 9-5 rut, so he takes to the freeways and decides to hitch his way down to Paradise City on the coast of Florida. Big mistake.
The novel opens with a truck driver giving Harry a lift and warning him that “this district is about as unhealthy and as dangerous as your paddy fields in Vietnam.” Mitchell, who’s used to everyone having an opinion about Vietnam, tends to think that the truck driver is exaggerating, so he can’t accept that the backroads of Florida are as deadly as the jungle he just left. The truck driver, however, insists that what he says is true and proceeds to tell some stories about the aggression of hippies who’ve descended on Florida. Soon, Mitchell witnesses some of this behaviour first-hand. After a run-in with a bunch of crazed hippies, Mitchell meets a young man named Randy who’s coincidentally also heading down to Paradise City. Randy hooks up a job for Mitchell as a lifeguard at a beach restaurant, and Mitchell, who appears to be easy-going and content to go with the flow, agrees to take the job.
Randy and Mitchell still have to get to Paradise City, and they plan to hitch the rest of the way. A mysterious young woman driving a Mustang and towing a caravan stops and offers the two men a ride. She insists that they drive while she sleeps. The offer seems too good to be true, and Mitchell sniffs that there’s something wrong about the situation. Unfortunately, he doesn’t listen to his instincts, and the next morning Mitchell and Randy have a stiff on their hands….
The Paradise City restaurant is owned and operated by former safe-cracker, Solo Dominico. It’s a “snazzy” place that attracts the “Cadillac crowd,” but that’s not the only element buzzing around the restaurant, and Mitchell comes to the attention of ambitious cop, Lepski and also becomes mired in a war between gangsters bent on revenge and retrieving some valuable merchandise.
Part of the novel’s problem is that the question of “hippies” is never really addressed. The ‘hippies’ in the novel are mostly more of your Charles-Manson-knife-wielding psychos, and not the-make-love-not-war harmless types . Mitchell’s travelling companion, Randy, who has long hair, a guitar, and who has burned his draft card is closer to the hippie ideal. Truckers on the road can’t seem to tell the difference between harmless Randy and the nut-jobs that stalk the freeways wreaking havoc in Florida. There’s a Hippie on the Highway was published in 1970, post Charles Manson, and the book’s somewhat cloudy approach to hippiedom is never addressed or cleared up. It seems that anyone young with long hair is a hippie, so we see the drama unfold through the eyes of those citizens who are suspicious and terrified of those they don’t understand. This is a minor blip, and probably reflects the prejudices of the time more than anything else.
Another blip is that the novel is, at times, an uncomfortable blend of styles: snappy, hard-boiled 50s dialogue which drifts in and out into late 60s lingo:
She sat down, spread her legs so he could see her pink nylon crotch and regarded him with her sexy look that seldom failed to get results. “Come on, tough cop. Before we talk business, reduce me to a jelly.”
“That will be a pleasure,” Lepski said.
He crossed the room and paused before her. As she began to pull up her sweater, he swung his hand and slapped her hard on her right cheek.
She reared back, her head slamming against the back of the chair. She recovered her balance and her face turned into an angry, snarling mask.
“You stinking, goddamn …” she began when his hard hand slapped again, jerking her head back.
Lepski eyed her and moved away.
“Listen, baby, I take nothing from any whore. I wouldn’t touch you wrapped in plastic. I’m busy. I’ve spent a buck. So sit up and stop acting like a whore in a 1945 movie.” He suddenly grinned. “And let me remind you you are now talking to a cop who is a better animal than you, but not much better.”
She drew in a long breath, touched her face tenderly, stared at him, then the rage slowly died out of her eyes.
“You’re quite a man,” she said huskily. “Let’s go to bed, damn it! I think you could launch me off my pad.”
“Let’s talk.” Lepski sat opposite her. “When I’m on police duty, there’s no count down for my rocket.”
Of course, this may also not be a fault of the narrative as much as Lepski’s underlying desire to be a noir-type hero (he even admits that his 40s style works), but still there’s the sense that this is a novel that sometimes uncomfortably straddles the decades. The idea of the Vietnam vet who’s survived jungle warfare only to return to a mess back home appealed to this reader, and there are some great characters here with lowlife cop, Lepski topping the bill. The interactions between the cops as they jockey for favour in the department and Lepski’s search though the seedier dives of Florida are a lot of fun. Looking around on the internet, this doesn’t seem to be considered one of James Hadley Chase’s best, but hey… what a great title, right?
I’ve read and enjoyed No Orchids for Miss Blandish, so if any James Hadley Chase fans have any other recommendations, I’d be happy to hear them.