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Mark Girland by James Hadley Chase

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#1 chrisno1



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Posted 15 October 2016 - 02:55 PM



I’ve not really known anything about the author James Hadley Chase except that when I grew up in the seventies and eighties Panther Books had a whole series of his titles emblazoned with his name in gaudy colours and augmented by a photo of scantily clad dolly bird, usually against a black background. I watched the Robert Aldrich movie The Grissom Gang way-back-when and was surprised to discover it was based on his novel ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’.


It was with even more surprise that I recently discovered Chase is actually an Englishman, relocated to France, who wrote American crime fiction, adventure stories and even the occasional spy story. When the espionage genre was all the rage, Chase decided to embark on his own brief canon of secret agent thrillers starring the loquacious sometime spy Mark Girland. Left an inheritance after the war, American Girland has – like his creator – decamped to Paris and is eeking a living selling knock off art and doing occasional work for Rossland, an obese, lazy and incautious spymaster.


Rossland himself is in the employ of Dorey, the official head of US operations in Paris, a man who has contacts all over the country. Dorey has come into a snippet of information regarding Robert Carey, an agent who defected to the Soviet Union, but subsequently vanished. These two shadowy men pay Girland a pittance to trace the contact, first to a dodgy cabaret club on Boulevard de Clichy and then to the desert enclaves surrounding Dakar, Senegal. All the while he’s pursued by the sinister tycoon and counter-intelligence middle-man  Radnitz, the blonde Russian executioner Malik and the demure double agent Janine Daulnay.


The novel starts really well, with a swift briefing, a confrontation over the Paris rooftops and Rossland’s violent murder. There’s plenty of muscle and intrigue on display. The action is well described. The plot thickens nicely. The characters are believable if slightly stereotypical; they all seem to be more of the hardened gangster type than the archetypical espionage figure. Girland particularly interested me as he seems to neither like working for his boss nor loafing around doing nothing. He lives purely for the satisfaction of quick love and a glass or two of whisky and wine. He’s certainly an opportunist and a smooth talker. The problem wasn’t with the central character, who generally comes across well, but with the remaining cast, many of whom drop into the action without any preset.


While I accepted the fact Girland was an American, it began to grate that everyone else was too. And if they were not, they all talked like they were. There simply doesn’t seem to be any reason for this. If Chase wanted to write in such a fashion he ought to have simply set his story in New York instead of Paris. There may be a reason for this which is basically that Chase had never visited America for any length of time. His books were not well-received in the States, possibly because of the lack of an authentic voice. Here, while Chase is very good in the Paris scenes and the wastelands of Senegal, it’s his characters which let him down badly. They sound so very out of place.


For all that, the story weaves its way nicely to an acceptable climax and the obligatory twist or two rears its head. There is a particularly affecting torture scene, a smattering of sexual matters, two car chases through the desert and a last minute rescue. It’s all very satisfactory.


Girland features in three more novels and I’m looking forward to seeing where the author chooses to take his hero next.



#2 chrisno1



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Posted 18 November 2016 - 12:41 PM

The review below does not feature Chase's sixties hero Mark Girland but an earlier incarnation called Don Micklem. I can't be bothered to start a new thread for two novels...






Mission to Venice by James Hadley Chase was first published in 1954 around the time Ian Fleming’s Bond saga was beginning to bear fruit. It is a solid exciting spy yarn that takes place predominantly in Italy and features a series of swift, urgent action sequences.

The hero of our novel is Don Micklem, a New York millionaire playboy who inexplicably resides in a two-storey London townhouse while owning palatial houses in Nice, Monte Carlo and Venice. Quite why he has to be an American I can’t fathom, especially as he has all the trappings of an English gent – including a fastidious butler, Cherry, and a winsome secretary, Marian – and even speaks as if he has the proverbial marble under the tongue.

Cast this aside however and Micklem is a likeable rogue, able to take care of himself, smooth talking, practical. We meet him as he’s about to jet off to Venice, clearing his desk of dull correspondents; he’s obviously bored. His attention span is slight. The trappings of luxury and privilege excite him only momentarily. He’s offhand, smart and droll. I rather like him.


Just as he’s about to depart, the wife of an old friend pleads for his help in tracing her husband, John Tregarth, who turns out to be a British spy currently holed up ever so conveniently in Venice. Here danger lurks on every canal and in every palazzo. The action is fast and furious as pursuit and clue, fight and murder follow each other with wild abandon. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and while it is a traditional and rather dated tale, Chase’s pace, his instinct for storytelling, hits you like a right hook, surprises you and draws you into his adventure.

There’s not much in the way of love interest and the villains seem to be an indestructible lot, but the twists of the tale certainly hold the reader, coming as often as the turns in a Venetian canal. The final quarter is a tad flabby: a chase across northern Italy which relies too much on the reader believing the Communists have a spy in literally every single village, hotel, store, harbour, river boat, etc. It was hard not to dredge up images of Bond and Tania’s flight at the climax of the cinematic version of From Russia With Love. Perhaps Richard Maibaum pinched the idea from here. Never the less I managed to finish the book at breakneck speed in three sittings – always a good sign.

Chase has certainly hit on a winner here. It’s a tight, taut thriller. I’d recommend it, even with a misplaced ‘American’ hero.


#3 chrisno1



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Posted 23 November 2016 - 02:08 PM



The second adventure to star Chase’s American hero Mark Girland kicks off with the mysterious appearance of an intimately tattooed blonde amnesiac, a woman the CIA believe to be the Swedish mistress of a famed Chinese atomic scientist. Dorey, the agency’s Divisional Director for Paris, wants to keep her safe, the assumption being she must be party to many secrets. The Russians want to kidnap her for the same reasons. The Chinese simply want her dead.


Dorey drops Girland into this maelstrom, asking his errant agent to pose as Erica Olsen’s husband in the hope her amnesia prevents her from remembering she isn’t married and has never met him. Girland’s orders are to dredge up memories of Erica’s time in Peking. [The book shows a little of its age with references like that!] Naturally the operation fails to run smoothly.


Malik, the sandy haired Russian giant from This is For Real, who I thought had starved to death lost in the deserts of East Africa, returns as Girland’s nemesis. He has learnt nothing from their previous encounter, allowing Girland plenty of time to formulate escape plans, and he’s still hamstrung by the surrounding incompetent underlings, most of whom get killed. There is a new villain in the Chinese special agent Jo-Jo, but he suffers from being poorly written and I found it hard to believe he was the Red Army’s top assassin. In fact all the Chinese characters are badly drawn excepting Pearl, a scheming female of wicked intent who really should have been more involved in the narrative.


Unusually Chase inhabits his story with five important roles for women and he’s careful not to descend into caricature when fleshing out their personalities, I particularly liked the young nurse, Ginny, a tragic ingénue out of her depth both with love and with spies.


The scenery moves swiftly from Paris to the Cote d’Azur and finally a bloody climax on board a junk-boat in Hong Kong harbour. Chase keeps the pages turning as action follows suspense follows intrigue. There are twists, double crosses and unexpected revelations. There is also a smattering of sex, thrust into the proceedings with the incisiveness of a trigger finger in that matter-of-fact manner the author prefers when navigating a hero’s personal relationships.


It’s quite a bitter tale. Girland isn’t very likeable this time around and has a depressed attitude towards his life and work. Despite this the piece reads almost effortlessly and most effectively. While it still grates that the main protagonists have to be Americans, especially as they rarely sound it, I couldn’t fault the drive and purpose of this Cold War thriller where every opportunity is seized, every mistake will cost and every stranger is a potential enemy. With all honesty, I wish more novels were so deftly constructed yet also so tax-less on the mind. I consumed it easily in two evenings.


You Have Yourself A Deal is a good read and gets a solid thumbs up from this reviewer.

Edited by chrisno1, 24 November 2016 - 12:54 PM.

#4 chrisno1



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Posted 02 December 2016 - 04:01 PM



The third Mark Girland adventure takes place predominantly in Communist Czechoslovakia. Have This One On Me was published just months before the Prague Spring, an event which must have dated the book immediately. However, ignoring unfortunate coincidences, this is a straight up thriller which fairly pounds along delivering the expected excitement with some aplomb.


Jonathon Cain’s cover is blown. His agent, Alec Worthington, a bag-of-nerves English teacher, has fled Prague and the CIA need another man to spy on the Czechs. Only first they must organise a distraction or risk discovery. Dorey elects to send in Mark Girland as a sacrificial lamb, superficially to collect $30,000 of stolen US Army payroll. Dorey doesn’t care if our hero comes back alive or not, but once Girland meets the delightful Mala Reid, a beautiful if unlikely heroine, he decides it might be worth helping the agents to escape – especially when the Soviets unmask and kill the CIA man sent to rub out Worthington.


There proceeds a lot of wily mischief among the apartments and hotels of Prague before the fugitives embark on a long tense trek for the Austrian border. Sadly author James Hadley Chase has no clue about the basic geography of the country, the cut of its architectural cloth or the inherent customs of Czechoslovakia, so there is very little in the way of detail or flavoursome description. Whole scenes and locations come across as rather ordinary and could have been easily transposed into any Iron Curtain city.


It’s a credit to the author’s storytelling ability that this drawback doesn’t make much difference to the overall atmosphere of the piece, which retains a dramatic suspenseful core right up to its underground climax. But it’s disappointing Chase hasn’t been prepared to do his homework as a little more constructive exposition would have made the Prague act so much more authentic.


An equally severe drawback to Chase’s style is that he lacks the necessary grasp of dialogue to make his characters sound believable. Here they’re all slightly cringe-worthy stereotypes and there is no distinction made between Russian, Czech, American or English idioms; all words catch all in Chase’s world. That Girland’s tales are just about able to rise above this challenge is a tribute to the energy and sheer instinctive exuberance which inhabits the pages.


As it stands, this novel is a good read, but not a great one. It lacks depth, either in character, location or realistic environments. The spying / spy craft sections work well: the machinations in Paris in particular are both intelligent and rather fun as Dorey attempts to resolve an out of control situation. Chase even provides a dishy secretary, Mavis Paul, a sort of Moneypenny to Dorey’s M and O’Halloran’s Tanner, who is desired by many but owned by none. As the action reaches boiling point the author’s tone becomes less playfully caustic and veers towards the obscurely delirious. I can only assume this is an attempt to mask the shortcomings in research and postulation.


I enjoyed it, with reservations.

Edited by chrisno1, 05 December 2016 - 12:55 AM.

#5 Dustin



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Posted 02 December 2016 - 06:04 PM

Thank you for taking all the trouble with researching and reading these forgotten series for us, chrisno. Many interesting finds I never knew about - and plenty of reading time saved in cases.

#6 glidrose


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Posted 03 December 2016 - 09:13 PM

Ditto. I'm glad you're taking the time and trouble to review books that would otherwise be lost to the ravages of time. Don't let the lack of responses discourage you.

#7 chrisno1



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Posted 05 December 2016 - 12:56 AM

Thanks. I'll post another review tomorrow. Still awaiting a copy of Mission to Siena...

#8 chrisno1



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Posted 05 December 2016 - 12:21 PM



The final Mark Girland tale is the least entertaining of a series which had tended to delivery diminishing returns. The Whiff of Money isn’t a bad novel, but it doesn’t stretch any new ground for James Hadley Chase or his opinionated hero, who is objectionable most of the time and finally admits to the reader – and to a startled and stunned heroine – that he’s a mercenary only intereste din the whiff of money. To earn his reward this time he even deceives her: “Is it against the rules to blackmail a blackmailer?”


It might be fair to say that Gillian Sherman deserves her sardonic predicament as she keeps fairly bad company – murderers, pimps, drug pushers, misguided political activists, blue movie makers and money-grabbing spies being de rigueur. She isn’t alone: Vi Martin, a good-time model-come-Commie stooge, gets the sharp edge of her boyfriend’s tongue and fist; President elect Henry Sherman and his wicked witch of a wife plan to have their errant estranged daughter murdered; Herman Radnitz is exploiting the future president for his business ends; the Communist agents all hate and fear and plot against one another. Among it all the returning and now curiously sympathetic figure of Malik is an odd centre of tranquil reason.


Not a lot actually happens in this adventure. It is curiously static. The first half is an extended stroll around the seedy corners and distasteful characters of downtown obscene Parisian night and day. It builds the story nicely and at this point Girland has my attention even if he too treats the girls with a fairly hefty hand. When the action switches to Germany it becomes a travelogue minus the essential detail. Again, as with his recurrent dialogue lapses, James Hadley Chase has neglected to attend to his research. The action could just as easily take place in London, Spain or Tokyo so bland is the presentation.


Holed up awaiting death in a grand German schloss, our hero receives some surprising aid. There’s plenty of implied menace as all the spies spend page after page watching each other, second guessing motives and third guessing movements, but it’s all a bit repetitive. A couple of moments of casual violence enliven the proceedings, yet they seem to pass with the same brevity afforded the equally casual sex. At the end of the novel no-one seems to have won the day and you really wonder why Chase bothered to write such an open ended story.


Generally I enjoyed the Mark Girland quartet. The stories are impulsively written and compulsive in the reading. Their faults are broadly similar and I suspect these issues pervade all of the author’s work. What I can’t fault is James Hadley Chase’s ability to lick a yarn into shape. For the most part these adventures are as sharp as a knife with characters as blunt as a cosh and a pace that hurtles like a bullet. All in all, a good definition a literary cheap thrill.



#9 chrisno1



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Posted 22 December 2016 - 03:25 PM

This is the second of the Don Micklem novels:





Whatever finesse there was to the thrillers of James Hadley Chase, I found most of it sadly lacking in Mission to Siena, the second and last book to star American playboy-come-adventurer Don Micklem. All the rudiments are in place, including a very Bond-like villain, but the execution is startlingly poor.


The main thrust of the story takes place in Italy, but, as with the disappointingly sketchy Have This One On Me, Chase’s local knowledge is so bland and perfunctory as to be almost non-existent. When our hero reaches Siena he’s so well-to-do he can afford to conveniently rent an out of town villa. This means Chase has no need to write scenes of any merit in Siena itself. Well, there are three, but they are soulless exhibitions and, like the rest of the action, could be transposed to any European country or city at the flick of a typing spool. The famous Palio horse race, while mentioned, never features.


Adding to the sense of disappointment are the London scenes which while swift and fairly hard boiled lack an edge. Too much happens by convenience: the police allow the villains an easy escape from a dragnet pursuit; Micklem just happens to know the murder victim; he also happens to have a useful underworld contact who knows everything about everybody; the killer Crantor equally appears to be the font of all knowledge about London low and high life; people unbelievably get to hide in car boots or in urban gardens with no suggestion of discovery. This list isn’t endless, but it is long and gives the piece an overall arc of implausibility that blights the narrative.


Prime offence are the villains themselves, a vain, weaselly bunch who are uncovered much too easily and scare much too readily. Simon Alsconi is 'The Tortoise', a fallen Italian count who has devised an extortion racket which has made him rich. He’s an authoritarian, uncompromising cad who spends most of his time smoking on his throne-like chair and stroking the fur of his black Persian cat [ ! ]. Said moggy vanishes half-way through never to be seen again – which is rather like Lorelli, the nominal heroine, who is at first tough and resolute, calm and confident, but veers sharply towards the incompetent and hysterical as she realises the hopelessness of her situation, ostensibly caused by the murder of an innocent girl. Running scared, she really ought to change her hair colour from Venetian red as it constantly [ conveniently! ] gives her away.


I ceased to believe in her or her lover Felix, a character similarly mapped, and their bitter, angry conversations lack any tension. The bully boys - the hideous scarred Crantor, the mad scientist Engelmann and the huge negro Carlos - come off better by virtue of being one dimensional. At the novel’s end even Simon Alsconi is begging for mercy and respite and making a series of pitiful misjudgements which lead to his ultimate demise and leave the reader unimpressed with this streak of villainy.


Micklem is a curiously static figure in this one. Kidnapped midway he spends much of the last third chained up in an underground cave. When he does escape it’s hardly the stuff of thrills. The eventual flooding of the caverns is meant to be the spectacular climax but this whole sequence is littered with impossibilities and I didn’t believe it for a page. Most mystifying is of all is what became of the Alsconi’s Persian cat or his litter of peculiar calling cards, a tortoise with a letter stuck to its shell. Maybe they drowned along with Carlos and Engelmann.


I ought to end on a positive note. The novel is swift, short and has moments of well described action. Unfortunately pace is not always a substitute for style and the content of this book, in its telling and presentation lacks the latter in spades. I recently discovered that the two Don Micklem novels were originally published by Chase under the pseudonym Raymond Marshall and I wonder if he considered these novels sub-standard. Certainly, on this account, it might be so.



A quick break and then in the new year I'll be reading the four late sixties adventures by Adam Diment featuring his pot smoking over sexed spy Philip MacAlpine. Can't wait...