In two shocking tales reprinted from the 1940s, one of the world’s most notorious crime writers explores a self-destructive writer’s catastrophic fixation with a prostitute, and a meek, introverted encyclopaedia salesman’s transformation into the daring, determined hoodlum he has always fantasised about.
Although best remembered for his infamous debut novel, No Orchids for Miss Blanding, prolific British writer James Hadley Chase (aka René Raymond) authored some 90 books, more than half of which were turned into movies.
Following in the footsteps of author James M. Cain, Chase’s stories are predominantly hard-boiled American crime noir. Eve and More Deadly Than the Male, both originally published in the mid-1940s, are powerful examples of Chase’s ability to shock, dismay and enthral the reader.
While too depressing for some, Gregory Shepard, in his introduction to this Stark House reprint, considers these Chase novels ‘possibly the darkest tales he ever penned,’ lauding Eve as ‘the ultimate noir.’ Although surprisingly scant on violence and crime, it’s full of dark, unpleasant and sleazy situations, and features a thoroughly wretched protagonist.
Set during the Golden Age of Hollywood, with the contemptible narrator Clive Thurston rubbing elbows and knocking heads with talented screenwriters and directors and powerful literary agents and movie producers who can make or break careers, Eve is, in spite of its exciting, glamorous surroundings, a remarkably grim and sordid tale of obsession, paranoia and guilt.
Unlike those around him, Thurston is a despicable rogue who is charming and charismatic only when he wants to be and lacks good judgment and discipline. A much-admired playwright, owing to the fact he took credit for his dead friend’s work, he has had moderate success with novels but hasn’t any real talent and is on a downward spiral. Screenplays or a basic magazine article about the women of Hollywood are beyond his talents.
He is, by his own admission, ‘unethical, dishonest, vain and worthless,’ and ‘dross’ compared to those he associates with. Despite acquiring the love of Carol, a highly valued studio screenwriter, or having ‘the pick of some twenty smart, attractive women,’ he becomes utterly, hopelessly ‘infatuated with a prostitute.’
The woman in question, who prefers to be called Eve, is, in Thurston’s opinion, a social outcast with no discernible talents who is ‘morally and socially’ his inferior. She behaves with incredible selfishness and brutal indifference toward him. In fact, when they first meet she smashes an ashtray on his head, knocking him unconscious. And yet, for some unexplained reason, he yearns for her the way ‘a drug addict longs for a shot in the arm.’
In spite of plentiful warnings that a relationship with her will damage him professionally, Thurston blunders ahead without a care, unwilling to resist his urges and convincing himself and trying to convince others he is merely conducting research for a book.
Just as Carol forewarned, Eve manages to prick his ‘mean, horrid little ego’ and the sage advice of his agent is completely lost on him: ‘If you continue to kick around with this woman your name’s going to stink like a month-old corpse.’
Gloomy though it is, you can’t help but be engrossed by Chase’s painfully realistic narrative and feel disgust, resentment and pity for the ‘unscrupulous, dishonest fool’ Thurston.
The second novel, More Deadly Than the Male, set in London, contains a similarly cold, manipulative, fiercely independent woman with a vicious temper and, once again, she is responsible for luring a man to his doom.
This time, the hapless victim, 27-year-old George Fraser, is a former bank clerk of ten years who, because of gambling problems, has lost his job and wound up as a door-to-door salesman. Given that he is unnaturally shy and sensitive, lacks confidence, believes that whatever he plans to do is ‘bound to end in failure,’ and suffers from ‘an acute inferiority complex,’ he is ill-suited to the job.
He is also lonely and bashful, very inexperienced with women, and craves adventure. In his spare time, he reads American pulp magazines and dreams about gangsters and G-men, concocting wildly imaginative stories of his fictitious adventures in America – a place he has never visited – as mobster Frank Kelly’s gunman.
When he is asked to train new employee Sydney Brant, a sinister-looking man with ‘heartless and bitter’ eyes and a ghastly ‘livid scar’ on his cheek, George finds his life taking a dangerous turn. He quickly gets caught up in Sydney’s scary society of thieves and murderers, pimps and prostitutes, and small-time gang members.
It’s a world of evil and peril that fascinates and excites him, and once Sydney introduces him to the beautiful but slovenly Cora, George becomes so smitten with her that he is utterly incapable of escaping her or the savage, violent criminals who inhabit her world.
Exciting and engrossing, More Deadly Than the Male is a neatly plotted, character-focused crime novel with several distinctive, if unsavoury, characters. Cora, the unobtainable, money-grubbing femme fatale in ratty clothes, is as ruinous as the well-groomed prostitute Eve in the previous story, but much more devious and treacherous.
And as for the besotted, naive George, despite his imprudence and transgressions, you have a small measure of sympathy for him that you can’t afford the loathsome Thurston, and pity the hopeless life he chooses.
Harsh and murky, these dramatic, penetrating stories are captivating and distinctive, and well worth seeking out.
(Stark House Press, paperback, £15)