He is particularly crusty about my specialist subject, murder. Not only, according to Orwell, is the quality of real murder declining awfully, but murder mysteries these days (read: the forties) are simply not what they used to be when those bad old Victorians were in charge of the written word. One of the first essays I ever read by Orwell, 'Raffles and Miss Blandish' is about just that - a comparison of late-Victorian and mid-twentieth century attitudes to crime and criminality in literature. The two books he uses are smartly chosen to make his point (which is essentially: we are awful, they were great): representing the Victorians is the estimable Raffles, and holding up the side for the twentieth century is a book published in 1939 called No Orchids for Miss Blandish.
Miss Blandish is... an interesting book. I'm going to stop here and give you Orwell's own summary of its plot, because, as I think you'll see, it'd be hard to beat (hah).
Miss Blandish, the daughter of a millionaire, is kidnapped by some gangsters who are almost immediately surprised and killed off by a larger and better organized gang. They hold her to ransom and extract half a million dollars from her father. Their original plan had been to kill her as soon as the ransom-money was received, but a chance keeps her alive. One of the gang is a young man named Slim, whose sole pleasure in life consists in driving knives into other people's bellies. In childhood he has graduated by cutting up living animals with a pair of rusty scissors. Slim is sexually impotent, but takes a kind of fancy to Miss Blandish. Slim's mother, who is the real brains of the gang, sees in this the chance of curing Slim's impotence, and decides to keep Miss Blandish in custody till Slim shall have succeeded in raping her. After many efforts and much persuasion, including the flogging of Miss Blandish with a length of rubber hosepipe, the rape is achieved. Meanwhile Miss Blandish's father has hired a private detective, and by means of bribery and torture the detective and the police manage to round up and exterminate the whole gang. Slim escapes with Miss Blandish and is killed after a final rape, and the detective prepares to restore Miss Blandish to her family. By this time, however, she has developed such a taste for Slim's caresses that she feels unable to live without him, and she jumps, out of the window of a sky-scraper.
Now, Orwell does not rationally approve of Miss Blandish. Reading it, he says, is like taking 'a header into the cesspool'. This is not, oddly enough, because it is badly written (according to him, it is 'a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere'), but because its glorification of violence reminds him uncomfortably of the nationalist cults of Mussolini and Hitler. It's a bad sign of some bad times - but all the same, Orwell can't quite bring himself to pan it.
Given the fascinating awfulness of that plot summary, and the fact that Orwell clearly can't decide whether he loves it or loathes it, I've been curious about Miss Blandish since I first read the essay. Unfortunately for me, it's been pretty conclusively out of print for years. But then my excellent friend Boadicea, who has never met a literary problem she could not solve, walked into a second hand bookshop and discovered a bright-red and battered copy of No Orchids for Miss Blandish glowing up at her like a nightmare prostitute sign. So she bought it. And now I have read it. And, ladies and gentleman, I can conclusively reveal to you all that
IT WAS AWFUL.
Hesistant as I am to call Orwell wrong, he must, in this instance, have been huffing some fairly strong substances. Miss Blandish is about as far from 'a brilliant piece of writing' as anything I've read all year. It is the verbal equivalent of those drawings by very small children, where the sky is a purple line, the house is bright green and Mummy and Daddy are alien blob-circles being given electric shocks to the head. Blandish's narrative is about as focused as a fly with ADHD, its point of view changes with dizzying irregularity, and its descriptions are bewildering. Its slang (of which there is a lot) is also simply weird: for example, people 'dig up a smile' (from where? From the ground?) more times than I would have ever thought possible. The general effect is that James Hadley Chase has taken all the most famous noir crime tropes he could think of, dialled them up to eleven and stuck them in a blender.
Now, I believe firmly that it's possible to read an older book that's horrifically racist or sexist by today's standards and still enjoy the other aspects of it. For example, I may despise and be offended by Raymond Chandler's penchant for having his characters casually beat up women and Mexicans, but I have to admit that he's an incredibly technically accomplished writer. But there has to be something in that book worth admiring, and I am not about to begin being an apologist for a racist and sexist book with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. Therefore I have no problem at all with saying that Miss Blandish should NEVER BE READ AGAIN. By all means, keep a copy of it somewhere as a reference point for a time that we don't ever want to go back to, but please, please, don't ever give this book a reissue.
Its crimes against decent humanity are many. At one point, for example, the 'hero' (who is a watered-down Philip Marlowe with no inner life and fists like angry hams) decides he needs to question a Hispanic character. He therefore walks into the room and, with no word of warning, breaks the guy's nose, blacks his eyes and lays him out on the floor. And then he starts questioning him. Some of the novel's ladies were watching this exchange, and they totally adored what a manly man the hero was being. Women in Miss Blandish truly dig violence, which is lucky, because there isn't a scene a woman appears in where she's not at least slapped and at most threatened by red-hot electric wiring. Whenever a woman happens to express an opinion that isn't 'I want to have sex with you now!' all the men in the room look at each other like they can't believe the dishwasher just spoke, and I cannot even begin to tell you how many times rape is presented as a delightful bit of gentlemanly fun.
Oh god, I hated this book. It was brainless, pointless and poisonous - and yet, as I was reading it, I realised that I understood exactly what it was: 1939's answer to Fifty Shades of Grey.
One of the more amusing aspects of the recent wild media explosion about E. L. James and her tasteful tale about being whipped in the nether regions in the name of true love is that many commenters appear to think that this is the first time the nation has ever been gripped by a craze for a trashy book. Their brains appear to have been mercifully wiped of all memory of Twilight and The Da Vinci Code, for which I am profoundly jealous. But it's becoming pretty clear to me that every few years a really badly written book comes along that is totally and utterly tuned in to what people want at that moment.
What people want now, apparently, is aspirational pain porn featuring a City billionaire (this actually makes sense, given the recession: the world hates rich people, but loves money, creating vast ambivalence and the perfect sexual enigma), and it seems like what they wanted in 1939 was really, really nasty noir porn featuring a rich woman getting her comeuppance for being so rich and female. That's a pretty vile concept, but so's our Hot Thing of 2012, which just goes to show that people will never cease to disappoint you.
Like so many of the people commenting on Fifty Shades today, I suspect Orwell fell victim to Book Apologist Syndrome. Being of the time, he read it and got something from it, and so tried to justify his guilty pleasure by discovering that is was actually a literary masterpiece. Of course, this doesn't hide the fact that in reality the thing is a turd, but looking at it in this way makes me finally understand why Orwell wrote about it at all, and why he responded to it the way he did.
Miss Blandish clearly was the subject of the most enormous craze - the edition I read claims amusingly that 'The story of Miss Blandish needs no introduction... She has been accepted as a household word'. Of course, this is entirely no longer true, and this suggests to me the delightful possiblity that in fifty years' time no one will have heard of Anastasia and Mr Grey - or Bella and Edward - either. Won't that be nice?
Meanwhile, though, it is time for the rating. I am not from 1939, and so I have no hesistation about making this the first book ever on this blog to be awarded