Wednesday, 6 February 2013

How James Hadley Chase taught British novelists to write American

Back in the early 1980s, I wrote a novel set entirely in contemporary New England. Most of my characters were American, but, although I’d only spent a total of three months in the States, I was so au fait with the American idiom through books and films and TV shows that it didn’t occur to me there’d be a problem with the dialogue. And so it proved - my American editor asked me to change a few things, but left the dialogue alone.

I made no attempt to capture New England speech patterns, of which I knew nothing, settling instead for a bland, flavourless form of the language. (Unfortunately the whole of the book turned out to be bland and flavourless, and, as a result, didn’t fare well.)

What has surprised me over the years is that, if a relatively untalented writer could get American dialogue right, why has it defeated so many distinguished British storytellers over the years?

I’ve just finished the third in John Buchan’s Richard Hannay trilogy, Mr Standfast (1919) - a rip-roaring thriller set during the First World War. This is meant to be an American secret agent talking:
“Why, Dick, this is better than good noos… there was no way of keeping you wise about my doings, for after I thought I was cured I got worse than hell inside, and, as I told you, had to get the doctor-men to dig into me. After that I was playing a pretty dark game, and had to get down and out of decent society. But, holy Mike! I’m a new man…they haven’t got as much sense as God gave to geese…He has a hobby for half-baked youth…he’s got the patience of Job and the sand of a gamecock…”
Doctor-men? Noos? Doings? Tarnation, that’s dreadful! The American character, Blenkiron, features heavily in the Hannay series, and this sort of nonsense spews out of his mouth every time he speaks.

H.L. Mencken was moved to write about this phenomenon in The American Language (1921):
E. W. Hornung, in one of his “Raffles” stories, introduces an American prize-fighter who goes to London and regales the populace with such things as these: “Blamed if our Bowery boys ain’t cock-angels to scum like this …. By the holy tinker! … Blight and blister him! … I guess I’ll punch his face into a jam pudding …. Say, sonny, I like you a lot, but I sha’n’t like you if you’re not a good boy.”
Crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers’ American characters also spoke in a version of the English language no one on the face of the planet had ever employed:
"Oh, that's nothing," said Mr. Milligan, "we haven't any fine old crusted buildings like yours over on our side, so it's a privilege to be allowed to drop a little kerosene into the worm-holes when we hear of one in the old country suffering from senile decay. So when your lad told me about Duke's Denver I took the liberty to subscribe without waiting for the Bazaar."
Agatha Christie was equally tin-eared when it came to American.

I suppose the problem was that the likes of Hornung and Buchan were writing in an era before radio or talkies and probably didn’t read the sort of American writer who dealt in contemporary demotic speech. They would, presumably, have read Mark Twain, and would have surmised that all Americans spoke in an equally colourful fashion: the difference being, of course, that Twain was rendering what he heard, while British writers were guessing wildly – and, of course, there would have been no reason for an American editor to critique their efforts, as they weren’t writing for the US market. They would, I suppose, have met Americans – Buchan, especially, put himself about a bit (he ended up as Governor-General of Canada) – but, if so, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to make their characters speak like the North Americans they’d actually encountered.

As for Christie and Sayers, they both started writing before the invention of talkies, and I suspect they didn’t spend every Saturday afternoon in the stalls at the local Essoldo watching American gangster movies in the 1930s, and I doubt if the BBC featured many ordinary American voices in its early broadcasts.

By the late 1930s, things had changed. The availability of American pulp fiction and westerns in the UK meant that some British writers had begun producing novels either set entirely in the US or featuring tough-guy American heroes. (I also wonder if the burgeoining influence of Ernest Hemingway's distinctly American, pared-back prose style helped.)

James Hadley Chase
After reading James M. Cain’s hard-boiled 1934 classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Englishman James Hadley Chase produced No Orchids for Miss Blandish in 1939, a US-set thriller based on the story of Ma Barker and her boys. Apparently, he used a dictionary of American slang and maps of the area in which the story was set. It sold hugely (Orwell even wrote an essay about it), and, despite becoming an RAF Squadron leader in WWII, Chase (real name René Lodge Brabazon Raymond, don’t you know) managed to produce eleven more thrillers in the Blandish vein by 1945, before turning his attention to London’s criminal milieu.

I’m no expert, but No Orchids for Miss Blandish shows little sign of having been written by an Englishman – let alone one who’d soon be giving Jerry a damned good thrashing. Here’s a typical extract:
It was a dark, moonless night. Old Sam turned on his headlights. The beams lit up the Jaguar. They could see MacGowan's head rolling with the motion of the car.
     “He won’t start trouble,” Bailey said. “He's had a real skinful.”
     Riley grunted.
     The next bend in the road brought them to wooded country. At this hour the road was completely deserted.
     “Okay,” Riley said. “Now crowd her!”
     The needle of the speedometer moved to eighty−five and then to eighty−eight. The Lincoln held the road without any roll. The wind began to whistle and the trees took on a smudged look. The distance between the
two cars remained the same.
     “What are you playing at?” Riley said, staring at Old Sam. “I said crowd her!”
     Old Sam shoved the gas pedal to the boards. The Lincoln crept up a few yards, but the Jaguar surged forward and the distance widened.
     “She's too fast for this crate,” Old Sam said. “We're not going to catch her.”
Punchy sentences, short bursts of dialogue, plenty of action, and authentic-sounding slang. Sorted. 

This stylistic approach resulted in Chase becoming one of the most successful thriller-writers of the last century. He was, though, beaten to the punch by another Englishman, Peter Cheyney, a Whitechapel-born crime reporter who, the story goes, produced his first  hard-boiled “American” detective short story in the mid-thirties after betting a friend £5 that “anybody” could write one.

Peter Cheyney
His first novel, This Man Is Dangerous, featuring undercover FBI agent, Lemmy Caution, was published in 1937. Cheyney produced another 46 novels, mainly in the crime and spy genres, before his death in 1951 (he died at the age of 55, having led an extremely rackety life). In 1946, 1.5 million of his novels were sold around the world. The French, who became obsessed with American culture after the war, couldn’t get enough of the Lemmy Caution novels, filming six of them. (I’ve no idea whether they knew Cheyney was actually British, which might have curbed their enthusiasm.)

I find Cheyney’s style almost unbearable. He tends to write in the first person, so he’s constantly writing in what he imagines to be an American voice. Consequently, we get oodles of this sort of stuff (the opening paragraph from You’d Be Surprised! -which I wasn’t):
Maybe you guys have got a good vocabulary of your own. Maybe you can find just the right cuss-word when you want it. But I’m tellin’ you that even if you was listenin’ to Doctor Goebells talkin’ to himself about Winston Churchill after dinin’ on an ersatz filet mignon, you would still not begin to understand some of the expressions I have been gettin’ off on this trip.
Oh dear! I don’t mind the “g” being replaced by an apostrophe in dialogue – but when the practice extends to all the words ending in “ing” in between, it becomes old very quickly. By the end of the first page one finds oneself praying that Lemmy Caution will get his friggin’ head blown off on page two. Also, were FBI agents really so illiterate that they’d habitually substitute “was” for “were”? I thought J. Edgar Hoover insisted his men all had degrees. And if you talked like “Lord” Alan Sugar, would you really be conversant with the adjective “ersatz”?

What a horrible hodge-podge.

Chase and Cheyney started a trend that exploded at the end of the war, when British “Mushroom” publishers began churning out zillions of American-set genre novels and short stories badly printed on cheap paper to satisfy a lust for excitement and glamour in millions of men suddenly faced with the dreary reality of an impoverished, exhausted peace, where fun, thrills and cash were in short supply.

The emperor of this grey, bombed-out world was undoubtedly the English pulp writer Stephen Francis Daniels, better known as Hank Janson. Between 1946 and 1953 – when he began sharing the pseudonym with other writers – Daniels had churned out (there is no other phrase for work done at this pace) no less than 48 Janson titles. And what titles they were!: When Dames Get Tough (1946), Gun Moll for Hire (1948), This Woman Is Death (1948), Lady, Mind That Corpse (1948), Blonde on the Spot (1949), Angel Shoot to Kill (1949), Gunsmoke in Her Eyes (1949), Honey Take My Gun (1949), Smart Girls Don't Talk (1949) – and the best of the lot, Slay-Ride for Cutie (1949).

Janson and his ilk ratcheted up the sadistic violence and lobbed in a lot more sex:
This time she resisted, not too strongly but enough. “Don’t be crazy,” she breathed. "Anyone can come in.”
“I’ve locked the dining room,” I whispered. “Closed down for the night.”
I felt the tenseness inside her, the rigidity of shock and fear. “You can’t,” she whispered. “You can’t do that and…”
I pressed her head towards mine, cut off her words with my mouth… etc.
This, which was cited in an obscenity trial against Janson’s publishers in 1954, isn’t exactly Nabokov, but there are no phony Americanisms. As with James Hadley Chase, there’s no way of telling the writer isn’t an American: Janson is perfectly at home with the lingua franca of pulp fiction.

By the time Daniels and myriad other post-war hard-boiled British scribblers started cranking out this stuff, American popular culture had conquered Britain, thanks to the talkies. Because so many US troops had been stationed in Britain, most Brits had had an opportunity to talk to real, live Americans. And when television really got going in Britain in the mid-1950s, cock-angels and gamecock sand were out of favour: there was no longer an excuse for writers to get it wrong. Which was real swell!

No comments:

Post a Comment