THIS IS FOR REAL
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.