This is a year of many literary firsts for me: my first e-book, my first James Hadley Chase. I know, it’s rather shocking . And while I’m in this confessional mood, I would also like to declare that I have never read a single Alistair Maclean, Louis L’Amour or Robin Cook. I’m not proud of it. I’m merely stating facts.
Before I write what I thought about Chase’s This Way for a Shroud, I must thank my husband for pointing out that a reading life without having once touched upon one of the most popular pulp writers ever, is really not much of a reading life. What good is it if you’ve read all the Dostoevsky and Proust and Camus there is, if you haven’t once read a truly popular writer. The kind that everyone – from a beleaguered office worker to a bored student to a literature professor- enjoys reading. Is there really any harm in letting one’s hair down once in a while in order to enjoy and good old thriller? No, I thought, not really. I might even learn something new.
And ladies and gentlemen, I did learn something new. I learned that even pulp doesn’t have to be predictable. I started reading the book with a few ideas lodged in my head: the case would get solved, the burly detective would get his man, the wilful wife would learn the errors of her ways, and the oily gangster would…well, be got by the detective. Win-win for all, except the oily gangster.
How wrong I was. How wonderfully, delightfully wrong I was. There is no happy ending in this little bit of hard-boiled fiction. There’s just too much realism. The victim was no innocent, the gangster is not as powerful as he ought to be and the detective himself is fairly helpless against the relentless cunning of one man. This one man, by the way, really upends the situation towards the end of the book. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, but like the other characters in the book, there’s little we can do.
So what is the plot? A popular Hollywood star, June Arnot, has been brutally murdered, along with her whole household staff. The crime scene is a bloodbath, and yet there is no evidence of the killer. Clearly, he or she was a professional. Detective Paul Conrad’s suspicions are roused after someone mentions that Arnot had been having a secret affair with a dangerous mobster named Maurer. The lack of evidence, however, hampers his investigation, until he discovers that there may have been a witness to the crime. It then turns into a race against time to find his elusive witness and to stay ahead of Maurer, who will stop at nothing to cover his crime. The matter is further complicated by Conrad’s wife Janey, who resents the amount of time her husband spends on his job. Also in the picture are a phantom-like assassin, a would-be gangster turned snitch and a compromised police officer.
Chase has a clean, conversational style which I really enjoyed. Despite the brevity of the book, the story is water-tight and the characters are all fully-realized – even the mobster’s moll, who is a minor character, gets her own moment of epiphany. We see how precarious her situation is and understand why she does the things she does, just as we understand why the star witness is unwilling to talk to the police, or why a detective’s wife might flirt with a known gangster.
I once read on Chase’s Wikipedia page that one of his hallmarks was using highly manipulative female characters, who cause more trouble than they’re worth. It made me think of the writer as a bit of a misogynist. However, based on this one book, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. If anything, Chase seems to have had a deeper understanding of his female characters’ motivations and the boundaries within which they were forced to function. Janey, for instance, is a beautiful, sociable young woman who is expected to live out her life at home. She’s clearly described as a girl who lead a somewhat ‘hectic’ life before her marriage, and to suddenly expect her to change, as her husband does, is unfair. Paul expects her to keep his house, look pretty and have no social life when he isn’t there to chaperone: all the while, he will stay busy with his work and pay little attention to her emotional needs. Under these circumstances, one can see why Janey lashes out and takes one stupid step after another, even if she herself doesn’t really understand it herself.
If like me, you’re in a bit of a reading slump, I suggest you pick up this book. Or any other by James Hadley Chase. And if you’re already a Chase fan, then perhaps its time to revisit one of your favourites.