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.
Ryan 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.”
“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.