“Again as if we were planning to drown a cat. No emotion, no nothing. Once more the cold dead finger went up my spine.”
After reading (trying to read) a couple of books which were disappointing, I knew I had to cleanse my mind with an author who would be a good safe bet–someone guaranteed to get me back on track. I have a huge stack of James Hadley Chase titles here, and he was just the antidote I needed to cure my recent reading slump. But which one to pick? Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead fit my mood…
It’s the 70s, post Vietnam, and our narrator finds himself on a Greyhound bus travelling from Sacramento to San Francisco. A former Wall Street trader who served 5 years for embezzling funds, 38-year-old Keith Devery has been out of jail for 10 months now, “living rough,” and moving from one itinerant job to another. He meets a businessman named Joe Pinner, who guessing that Devery is indigent, invites him to stop at the small coastal town of Wicksteed and even points him towards an available job as a driving instructor. Devery who has just $59 in his pocket, no job, no contacts, and no place to go, agrees. Pinner tells Devery that Wicksteed is a “friendly little town,” and that description soon appears to come true.
Devery certainly falls on his feet. His new boss, the owner of the driving school, is a man whose bank robber son was killed during a botched crime, and probably because he couldn’t help his own son keep on the straight and narrow, he’s motivated to employ Devery. Devery’s run of bad luck seems to have changed. He has a job that pays $200 a week, and rents a very pleasant room from a widow:
It had a divan bed on which I was lying, two comfortable armchairs, a small dining table with two chairs, a colour TV set and by the big picture window a small desk and chair. Facing me was a wall to wall bookcase, crammed with books. There were two wool rugs, one by the divan, the other under the desk. The flooring was polished wood blocks. There was a small, vine covered veranda that looked out onto the beach and the sea. For thirty bucks a week, the room was a steal.
You’d think Devery would be happy–a job, a good wage, and a nice place to live, but then, since this is a noir novel…..
Chase builds this fast paced, page turner with a silky smooth, yet relentless narrative. We’re inside Devery’s head, but through the author’s skill, we’re still outsiders imagining that Devery is happy and grateful for his lucky break. We’re like the suckers who help Devery, imagining that now he’ll recuperate his life and begin working hard. Think again.
My ambition was like the spots of a leopard. Once you are landed with my kind of ambition, you were stuck with it. My ambition for big money burned inside me with the intensity of a blow-torch flame. It nagged me like a raging toothache. During those five grim years in jail I had spent hours thinking and scheming about how to get my hands on big money. […] Sooner or later, I was going to be rich. I was going to have a fine house, a Caddy, a yacht and all the other trimmings that big money buys. I was going to have all that.
Nudged by “fate’s elbow,” Devery meets the owner of a real estate company, alcoholic, overweight, bombastic Frank Marshall. Marshall has “expectations” and when his aunt finally dies, Marshall will be a millionaire. This is the big score that Devery’s been looking for.
During my stay in jail, I had shared a cell with a slick con man who liked to boast about his past swindles. He had had, according to him, a spectacular career until he had become too greedy.
“For years, buster,” he said to me, “I have traded on other people’s greed and then, goddamn it, if I didn’t get greedy myself and look where it’s landed me … ten years in a cell!”
He had expanded on the subject of greed.
“If a guy has two dollars, he will want four. If he has five thousand, he’ll want ten. This is human nature. I knew a guy who was worth five million and he nearly bust a gut turning it into seven. The human race is never satisfied. The more they have, the more they want, and if you show them how to make a fast buck without working for it, they’ll be all over you.”
Of course, you can read that quote one of two ways: Devery is thinking that he can con Marshall out of his money, but the reader picks up another vibe–Devery has just landed on his feet through a stroke of good fortune. Why risk a steady job with prospects by committing another crime? Just who is greedy here Devery’s mark, Marshall or Devery himself?
My sights were set much higher than to spend the rest of my days in a one-horse town like Wicksteed. I wanted to get into the big league where the real money was.
Hadley plays this dual possibility of exactly which character is being played by his greed, with Devery thinking he’s in the driver’s seat while we know Devery is making a huge mistake. Gradually we see exactly what sort of man Devery is and how he’s able to reflect back the image people want to see. He even picks up the town habit of labelling everything “nice.” When Devery insinuates himself into Marshall’s life, he thinks he can count on Marshall’s greed, but Devery, unknowingly has changed lanes and is headed towards his inescapable fate.
Naturally we have to have a women in the tale, so say hello to Marshall’s much younger, stone-faced, reclusive wife, Beth:
The woman who stood in the doorway gave me a jolt of surprise. Around thirty-three, she was almost as tall as myself and she was thin: too thin for my liking. I prefer women with bumps and curves. Her features were good: a long, thin nose, a big mouth and a well sculptured jaw line, Her eyes gave her unusual face its life: black glittering eyes, steady and coldly impersonal. This wasn’t a woman with whom you took liberties: strictly no fanny patting.
This is my fourth James Hadley Chase novel to date. Chase, whose real name was René Brabazon Raymond, was British and wrote a large number of books (80-90 depending on which website you read). He wrote his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish after reading James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and realising the market demand for gangster stories, had a remarkable career writing crime novels. Chase’s books are mostly set in America even though he only visited a couple of times.
One of the arguments that Chase wasn’t as successful in America is that he didn’t get many of the details right (and Devery’s $200 a week wage seems high for the times), and that’s certainly apparent in There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a book I couldn’t resist thanks to its title. Unfortunately, Hadley’s view of hippies was more Mansonesque than I think the average person would imagine hippies to be, so the novel was, for me, a curiosity more than anything else. A Coffin from Hong Kong was a standard PI novel for anyone interested.
Translated into French as Fais-moi plaisir… crève !
11 responses to “Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead: James Hadley Chase (1976)”
Your commentary has made me think Guy. so much of fiction, as well as real life drama, relies of the tendency for people not to be satisfied with what seems like a good situation.
yes and in this book the main character trades away opportunities he later wished he still had.
I think I’m going to have to succumb to James Hadley Chase at some stage, despite those covers. I love Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (and the original movie, too), so No Orchids for Miss Blandish sounds like a good bet. He had an eye for titles, didn’t he!
Yes his titles are usually great. The cover has zero to do with the book if that’s any consolation….
Emma and I both read No orchids for Miss Blandish and we enjoyed it. I think there are comments on my blog post regarding various versions.
I love the title. I don’t know why but I always thought he wrote much earlier.
I think I’d pick No Orchids for Miss Blandish first though.
Caroline, he wrote for decades, so No Orchids and this one are from different stages of his career. He died in 1985.
One of the complaints about No orchids for Miss Blandish is that he edited it and added all sorts of modern details which did not exist at the time of No Orchid’s setting. Apparently there are many versions of the book out there. Sad really.
There’s a Hippie on the Highway is exactly the book title I want lying about on the coffee table when guests come to visit in San Francisco. It’s like something from The Onion (actually, it might pair nicely with the title of the Chase you’ve reviewed above). But how fascinating – I’m curious to read Chase now precisely because of the details he might not have gotten right. Right away “Wicksteed” struck me as completely off as a name for a California coastal town.
Apparently Chase had maps and books of slang phrases etc which he used for resource. At one point in Do Me a Favour the main character walks into a SF pawnshop and buys a gun. He’s told, by the seller, he’ll need a police permit, so he says he’ll go to the police station right away to get one as he walks out with the gun!
Clearly Chase read that you needed a permit to buy a hand gun but he had the details all wrong. I’m not exactly brushed up on gun law but I’m fairly sure there was a waiting period even back then for a handgun. (book published 1976). Fifteen days I think. It’s ten days now.
Yes Wicksteed sounded more Midwestern to me.
or a small town outside of Boston….
I love the title.
I wonder how the French translation sounds: A British writer, using a dictionary of US slang translated into French at a time when they laced their translations of noir books with phony French slang. The translation must be priceless.
Like Scott, I’d love to pick all the details that don’t match.
I think Gamillard publishes some of the titles Emma. Yes he does have some great titles, doesn’t he?