A Coffin from Hong Kong: James Hadley Chase (1962)

The prolific author, James Hadley Chase, is probably best known for No Orchids for Miss Blandish. That book was my introduction to this British crime author. Then followed There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a much later Chase novel I couldn’t resist for its title and cover. There’s a Hippie on the Highway, the story of a Vietnam vet looking for work in Florida and stirring up some violent hippies, was a bit of a strange read, well come to think of it, so was No Orchids for Miss Blandish, but of the two novels, No Orchids was a better novel, IMO.

So this brings me to A Coffin from Hong Kong, my third excursion into James Hadley Chase territory. This is a fairly standard, but good, PI tale of low-rent investigator Nelson Ryan, a man who takes it personally when he’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit.

A coffin from hong kongRyan gets a call one day from a man named John Hardwick who wants to hire Ryan to follow his wife. Hardwick claims he’s leaving on a business trip and that the timing is perfect for Ryan to stake out his house that night. Ryan initially objects as he likes to meet his clients in person, but Hardwick is leaving town and sends a courier over with $300 to seal the deal. Now Ryan, a man who it turns out does have a moral compass, feels obligated to take the job–in spite of the fact that something doesn’t smell right:

I had been working as an investigator for the past five years, and during that time, I had run into a number of screwballs. This John Hardwick could be just another screwball, but somehow I didn’t think he was. He sounded like a man under pressure. Maybe he’d been worrying for months about the way his wife had been behaving. Maybe for a long time he had suspected her of getting up to tricks when he was away and suddenly, as he was leaving for another business trip, he had finally decided to check on her. It was the kind of thing a worried, unhappy man might do–a split-second impulse. All the same, I didn’t like it much. I don’t like anonymous clients. I don’t like disembodied voices on the telephone. I like to know with whom I’m dealing. This setup seemed a shade too hurried and a shade too contrived.

Ryan should have listened to his instincts….

I liked the set-up for A Coffin From Hong Kong as it shows the inherent vulnerability of the PI, a train of thought I’d been following after a recent re-watch of The Maltese Falcon, and the scene when Humphrey Bogart’s partner, on a lonely stake-out, is abruptly snuffed out by an assassin. Both James Hadley Chase’s character, Nelson Ryan and The Maltese Falcon’s (Dashiell Hammett) Sam Spade are loners who discover a moral compass while investigating their respective cases. Both stories also illustrate that PIs mine territory on the fringes of police work. Lacking the protection of a badge, they are bottom feeders with shadier cases that frequently nudge illegality.

Ryan finds himself stitched up for the murder of a prostitute from Hong Kong, and he’s subsequently hired by a reclusive millionaire to discover who killed the girl. Ryan takes the case because he’s involved in the murder up to his neck, and in a bid to solve the crime, he travels to Hong Kong to try and trace the life of the dead woman.

There’s a lot of snappy dialogue between Ryan and the police detective on the case, Detective Lieutenant Dan Retnick. Everything points to Ryan as the killer of the prostitute, and while part of the detective would love to nail Ryan for the crime, part of him recognizes a frame.

He brooded for a long time, then he took out his cigar case and offered it to me. This was his first friendly act during the five years I had known him. I took a cigar to show I appreciated the gesture although I am not by nature a cigar smoker.

We lit up and breathed smoke at each other.

“Okay, Ryan,” he said. “I believe you. I’d like to think you knocked her off, but it’s leaning too far backwards. I’d be saving myself a hell of a lot of trouble and time if I could believe it, but I can’t. You’re a cheap peeper, but you’re no fool. Okay, so I’m sold. you’re being framed.”

I relaxed.

“But don’t count on me,” he went on. “The trouble will be to convince the D.A. He’s an impatient bastard. Once he knows what I’ve got on you, he’ll move in. Why should he care so long as he gets a conviction?”

There didn’t seem anything to say to that so I didn’t.

There are some racist remarks in the novel from the police–but Ryan obviously doesn’t share their views. I liked this novel, and while I guessed one element of the plot, I didn’t guess the identity of the killer. I also really liked the character of Ryan. He’s a bit sleazy–taking the case when he knows better because he needs the 300 bucks, taking whiskey on a stakeout and eyeing every female he encounters, but still at his core, there’s a sense of right and wrong, and even though he’s embroiled in the case initially because he’s framed for a murder, there’s a sense of justice at the base of his search for answers. Chase’s style is spare and unadorned, and goes well with the subtly understated moral undercurrents. The novel, a good place to start for those who’d like to try Chase,  concludes simply and yet very very poignantly.

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13 Comments

Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

13 responses to “A Coffin from Hong Kong: James Hadley Chase (1962)

  1. I’ve never read James Hadley Chase, but I might give this a try at some point as I enjoy a decent PI tale in between the heavier stuff. I like the quotes you’ve shared here, along with your description of Ryan, That cover’s very much of its time, isn’t it?

    • Yes it’s a great cover but it doesn’t reflect the book’s tone. Chase is a good one to dip into from time to time. You know how it is, sometimes it’s just right to read a crime novel.

  2. The sleazy, semi moral protagonists. have become cultural icons. Though Writers often fall in cliches when depicting them. But when handled correctly I still love them.

  3. Is that cover from the 1970s by any chance? It borders on a soft-porn image. Effective though of course, assuming a straight male readership anyway.

    The book sounds pretty good, possibly the best introduction to Chase. He was a bestseller in his day wasn’t he?

    He did have a knack for titles, you have to give him that.

    • It looks as though it was published in 62. From the cover I expected the novel to be more salacious than it was, but it’s a lot more sensitive than the cover indicates. Ryan clearly has a lot of sympathy for the Hong Kong prostitutes, and I’m thinking that if the cover depicts anything in the book, it must depict the stripper he runs across. There’s a bit of Gypsy Rose Lee look to the model’s “outfit.”

      No orchids for Miss Blandish convinced me to read more Chase but getting the right version is a problem, and There’s a Hippie on the Highway really shouldn’t be read first. Yes, a best selling author of his day. He wrote over 90 novels of which 50 have been made into films (according to Wikipedia).

  4. We seem to have lost that intriguing Sam Spade character from PI/crime novels now. They are still often tortured souls in one form or another, but there is a darkness about them that wasn’t there. There was always a sense that the book was a performance in a way that doesn’t seem to happen now. It’s deadly earnest. Maybe it’s the parallel to the increasing heaviness of YA literature, weighed down with everyday tragedies like parents splitting up and terminal illnesses, where once they were about lost love and teenage embarrassments of various kinds.

  5. I was going to ask the question you answered. So this would be a good starting point? Did you like it better than “No Orchids . . . “?

    • I liked No Orchids in a different way–I think it’s much more subversive. This is a fairly straightforward PI tale. Plus No orchids is problematic. There are various versions of it–it’s been bowdlerized and then the author reworked it much later and added modern touches to it that clashed with the rest of the story, so in other words it’s important to find the right version.

  6. No orchids for Miss Blandish seems more violent than this one which sounds recreational.

    I also thought the cover was from the 1970s and it’s a strange contrast with the title.

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