Thank God I Read James Hadley Chase … and Achebe


Thank God I Read James Hadley Chase … and Achebe
By Azuka Onwuka

I have been planning to write this for many years now but the article of Prof Okey Ndibe, author, columnist and literature lecturer, with the headline, “How Achebe saved me from James Hadley Chase” finally decided me. In that article, Ndibe said that because he began to read Chinua Achebe’s books early in life, unlike many of his classmates, the attraction in Achebe “saved” him from reading the novels of James Hadley Chase.

His tone showed that by not reading Hadley Chase, he felt he was saved from reading low literature. But on the contrary, I have this belief that anybody, especially a man, who is of my generation (or of a generation before me) who did not read James Hadley Chase as a youth lost a great part of his youth that is irrecoverable.

James Hadley Chase

  • James Hadley Chase – Real nameRené Lodge Brabazon Raymond (1906-1985)

Three writers have had the greatest impact on me: Chinua Achebe, William Shakespeare, and James Hadley Chase. Because of the love I have for these three writers, I have read everything they wrote that I could lay my hands upon. In my university days, even though we were not required to, I bought, with my pocket money, The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, and read it from cover to cover, in spite of the aversion many have for Shakespearean English.

Each of the three writers is captivating: a weaver of words, a master of imagery, a merchant of humour. But given that Chase wrote thrillers, his novels had the continuous gripping suspense that pumped up the adrenaline and caused the heart to skip some beats. That was why boys and girls who got addicted to it could suspend every other thing, including food, drinks, parties, football, sleep, etc, until they were done with it.

I would not be exaggerating to say that the best thing that happened to me as a teenager was the discovery of James Hadley Chase. Before Chase, I was reading Pacesetters and other novels. They were interesting. I saw people reading Chase but was not courageous to read it because of the bikini girls with pistols on the cover. I assumed that it was erotica: a literary euphemism for pornography. But during a free period in school, a classmate told us an enchanting story about one James Hadley Chase’s novel named You Find Him, I’ll Fix Him. I asked him to confirm that the story he just told us was what was in that novel rather than sexual stories. He said that there was no iota of sex or eroticism in it. Not long after, I went to my brother’s library and grabbed The Vulture Is a Patient Bird. I was blown away. From the start of the novel to the end, I did not drop it. I did not eat. I did not do any work. I did not step out of the room. When it was over, I went for more.

I read The Flesh of the Orchid, The Way the Cookie Crumbles, and Want to Stay Alive? Luckily for me, my elder sister, who was already married and had children, got bitten by the bug too. She began buying them. So, she would read and pass on to me. Any day I planned to read a Chase’s novel, I ensured that I did not have any time-consuming thing to do; that I had no test or exam to prepare for; and that I did not start reading it at night. If I started reading it in the evening, I was certain to be awake all night. If there was a cut in electricity supply, I was certain to read it with a lamp or torchlight. I would continue to say: “Let me just get to the end of this chapter and stop.” But like an enchantress, the author continued to lure me page after page to the end of the book.

But while reading Chase for the enchanting stories, other things were unconsciously happening to me. My vocabulary was increasing astronomically. It was in Chase that I learnt the meaning of so many words like “safari”, “avalanche”, “homicide”, “blackmail”, “double-cross”, “amnesia”, “insomnia”, “somnambulism”, “somniloquism”, “fall guy”, and “cyanide” among others. It was through Chase that I learnt the names of many phobias: claustrophobia, agoraphobia, xenophobia, etc. It was through Chase that I learnt the names of many types of mania: kleptomania, nymphomania, megalomania. It was in Chase that I learnt the register of many professions like the police, law, medicine, music, aviation, sailing, insurance, banking, etc. In addition, my spoken and written English improved, as well as my writing skills and ability to hold the reader’s attention. Chase taught me how to cast catchy headlines.

Also, it was through Chase that I learnt that characters could be described so graphically that a reader would search for them in the street.

It was through Chase that I got some basic security tips that on a number of occasions, I was lucky to escape robbery attacks while my neighbours were robbed. It was in Chase that I learnt that a person should alter one’s routes and time schedules regularly. For example, reading the kidnap account of Prof. Elechi Amadi, author of The Concubine and other books, some time ago, I discovered that he confessed that those who kidnapped him knew the route he took to work every day and that he left home at a particular time and returned at a particular time. So, they knew where and when to wait for him.

(Cambridge, MA - November 17, 2008) Novelist Chinua Achebe reads some of his poetry Monday Afternoon for a packed Tsai Auditorium as the guest speaker for this year's Distinguished African Studies Lecture. Staff Photo Nick Welles/Harvard News Office

  • Chinua Achebe

Courtesy of Chase, I learnt that a driver should periodically look at the rear-view mirror to check if a car is tailing him. It was Chase that taught me that not every suicide is a suicide, and not every fall to death is a fall. In Chase, I learnt the danger in dealing with a person who has nothing in life to lose: like reputation, family, money, job, etc.

Chase showed me vividly that any time a person wakes up and starts thinking of how to grab some money that he hasn’t worked for, he is heading for trouble and destruction.

For those of us who are writers and authors, we have a lot to learn from Chase. In the 70s and 80s, people read all kinds of books in sight. Today, most Nigerians who bother to read at all, only read the novels of authors who have a literary prize. The reading standard has nosedived. The coming of the social media has worsened an already bad situation. Interestingly, the same Nigerians who shy away from reading Nigerian novels still read novels by John Grisham, Dan Brown, Danielle Steel, etc. We writers should ask ourselves: What attracts them to these foreign authors? How can we attract them to read both the “serious” and the “unserious” Nigerian and African novels?

I think the solution lies in combining the art of a literary master like Achebe and a thriller master like Chase. Except for literature students and literary scholars who read for exams or for literary edification, the greater number of readers read for fun. Once your novel becomes too dense and winding, they get bored and move to other exciting things. And that means they may not buy another African novel. But if they get swept off their feet from the first page and are held captive with an intricate plot and suspense-filled tale, then they will pass the word around, and Nigerians and Africans will start reading for fun again.

Furthermore, when youths read captivating novels, they won’t have the time to get into crimes and vices. Their writing skills are also greatly enhanced. And their imagination and creativity are sharpened.

Today, if I were to see James Hadley Chase, whose real name is Rene Brabazon Raymond, I would buy him a drink, and tell him to “have this one on me.” If Chase were to be an arrogant man, he would look at the millions of people he has affected positively, and boast: “I hold the four aces.” Yes, that is “just the way it is.”

–Twitter @BrandAzuka


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