The Dead Stay Dumb: James Hadley Chase (1941)

The Making of a Gangster’s Moll …

“From now on I’m givin’ the orders and you’re takin’ em, see? We’re getting into the dough, an’ no one’s stoppin’ us. If they get in our way it’s goin’ to be so much grief for ’em–get that? In a little while I’ll be running the town. You can get in at the ground floor or you can stay out. You stay out an’ one dark night someone’s goin’ to toss a handful of slugs in your guts.”

The Dead Stay Dumb was published in 1941, just two years after No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and while the thematic connection is clear (gangsters running amok), of the two novels, I preferred No Orchids.

The Dead Stay Dumb is the story of Dillon, a hood–a cheap, violent, brutal hood so riddled with inchoate ambition that he brings about his own destruction. This is by far the most violent James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read so far (out of six). The violence, which comes with rapid, unrelenting speed was shocking. This is a novel without heroes or heroines, and our main character, Dillon, who let’s his Tommy gun do the talking for him, survives encounter after encounter simply because he’s the most vicious character in these pages.

the dead stay dumb

When Dillon arrives in the small town of Plattsville, he’s a “long, starved shadow of a man.” He looks like an average hobo, shabby and dusty, but there’s something about his aggression and the dead expression in his eyes that convinces some of the local bullies to give him wide berth. Store owner Abe Goldberg offers him a meal, but when he turns down booze and cigarettes and thwarts a bullying customer, Abe also offers employment to Dillon. But men like Dillon, whose former employer was Baby Face Nelson,  don’t want 9-5; they want money, lots of it, and they want it faster than they can earn it.

Within a short time of landing on his feet, Dillon organises a criminal enterprise by bullying the local thugs into becoming his underlings. Seventeen-year-old Myra Hogan, the local hottie, sets her sights on Dillon, and finding herself turned on by his brutality, she makes the mistake of thinking she can control it and turn violence into sexual passion.

Dillon said, “Skip it. I ain’t listening to big-mouth talk from a kid with hot pants. Get what you want and blow.”

Myra took three quick steps forward and aimed a slap at Dillon’s face. She was nearly sobbing with rage. Dillon reached up and caught her wrist. “Be your age,” he said, “you ain’t in the movies.”

Myra, who rapidly becomes an adept gangster’s moll, hits the road with Dillon, eventually teaming up with another crook called Roxy who is the least repulsive character in a book full of repulsive people. Dillon doesn’t see the point of women, and he isn’t impressed with Myra’s looks or sexuality. The way he sees it, she doesn’t have anything different from every other woman on the planet, so what’s she got to brag about? While women serve a purpose for Dillon, they’re not much use as living, breathing human beings, and at one point, he advises a fellow crook to use the Neanderthal approach: “if you gotta lay this bitch, why didn’t you knock her cold first?”

I’m not going to include a clip of the descriptive violence because it really is over-the-top, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s digestion, but I will add that The Dead Stay Dumb includes one of the longest, most violent fights between two women that I’ve ever read.

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10 Comments

Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

10 responses to “The Dead Stay Dumb: James Hadley Chase (1941)

  1. That’s interesting, because on one of the panels I attended in Lyon they said there were very few descriptions of overt female violence in literature -especially of two women fighting.

  2. I thought that No Orchids was violent enough for my tastes. I’ll know to stay away from this one. Thanks for the review and the warning.

  3. Definitely not for me either. It sounds too violent. It’s interesting that there’s a fight between women though.
    I would like to read No Orchids but I think it’s oop.

  4. It is really neat that you and others read these older books in this genre. Based on your description and the passage that you quoted this sound entertaining and worthwhile.

    Someday I am going top delve into a one or a few of these books.

  5. It sounds well done for what it is, but I’m not sure what it is is anything I’m presently in the market for.

    In a way it does sound more persuasive than usual in that I suspect one does get to the top in that sort of game by being more brutal than the next guy. I don’t really believe in charming and polished hoods as a rule – petty and vicious ones seem much more likely.

    • Yes and in that aspect it works (more brutal than anyone else), but the relentless violence does become a bit much. I would have liked more character development. For example, in the beginning Dillon doesn’t have much time for Myra and clearly isn’t about to let a woman have any sexual power over here. Yet later he juggles two women which seemed out of character given his very utilitarian view of women.

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