February 18, 2013
Orwell’s ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’: Evidence in ‘R v Bentley’?
For the prosecution — or the defence?
As I have mentioned already, No Orchids enjoyed its greatest vogue in 1940, though it was successfully running as a play till some time later. It was, in fact, one of the things that helped to console people for the boredom of being bombed. Early in the war the New Yorker had a picture of a little man approaching a news-stall littered with paper with such headlines as ‘Great Tank Battles in Northern France’, ‘Big Naval Battle in the North Sea’, ‘Huge Air Battles over the Channel’, etc., etc. The little man is saying ‘Action Stories, please’. That little man stood for all the drugged millions to whom the world of the gangster and the prize-ring is more ‘real’, more ‘tough’, than such things as wars, revolutions, earthquakes, famines and pestilences. From the point of view of a reader of Action Stories, a description of the London blitz, or of the struggles of the European underground parties, would be ‘sissy stuff’. On the other hand, some puny gun-battle in Chicago, resulting in perhaps half a dozen deaths, would seem genuinely ‘tough’. This habit of mind is now extremely widespread. A soldier sprawls in a muddy trench, with the machine-gun bullets crackling a foot or two overhead, and whiles away his intolerable boredom by reading an American gangster story. And what is it that makes that story so exciting? Precisely the fact that people are shooting at each other with machine-guns! Neither the soldier nor anyone else sees anything curious in this. It is taken for granted that an imaginary bullet is more thrilling than a real one.
The obvious explanation is that in real life one is usually a passive victim, whereas in the adventure story one can think of oneself as being at the centre of events. But there is more to it than that. Here it is necessary to refer again to the curious fact of No Orchids being written — with technical errors, perhaps, but certainly with considerable skill — in the American language. (…)
There exists in America an enormous literature of more or less the same stamp as No Orchids. Quite apart from books, there is the huge array of ‘pulp magazines’, graded so as to cater for different kinds of fantasy, but nearly all having much the same mental atmosphere. A few of them go in for straight pornography, but the great majority are quite plainly aimed at sadists and masochists. Sold at threepence a copy under the title of Yank Mags, these things used to enjoy considerable popularity in England, but when the supply dried up owing to the war, no satisfactory substitute was forthcoming. English imitations of the ‘pulp magazine’ do now exist, but they are poor things compared with the original. English crook films, again, never approach the American crook film in brutality. And yet the career of Mr. Chase shows how deep the American influence has already gone. Not only is he himself living a continuous fantasy-life in the Chicago underworld, but he can count on hundreds of thousands of readers who know what is meant by a ‘clipshop’ or the ‘hotsquat’, do not have to do mental arithmetic when confronted by ‘fifty grand’, and understand at sight a sentence like ‘Johnny was a rummy and only two jumps ahead of the nut-factory’. Evidently there are great numbers of English people who are partly americanized in language and, one ought to add, in moral outlook. For there was no popular protest against No Orchids. In the end it was withdrawn, but only retrospectively, when a later work, Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief, brought Mr. Chase’s books to the attention of the authorities. Judging by casual conversations at the time, ordinary readers got a mild thrill out of the obscenities of No Orchids, but saw nothing undesirable in the book as a whole. Many people, incidentally, were under the impression that it was an American book reissued in England.
During World War II, the house Bentley lived in as a child was bombed and collapsed around him, leaving Bentley with serious head injuries and concussed.
The second matter related to the expression “Let him have it”: these words were used in a case in 1940, R v Appleby (1940) 28 Cr.App.R 1, by one of two professional criminals who were found guilty of murdering a police officer. It was suggested that it was too remarkable a coincidence that those self same words were used by the appellant, and that the officers, probably at the behest of Detective Chief Inspector Smith, the officer in charge of the investigation, had drawn on their knowledge of that case and invented that piece of evidence.
We are bound to say that we found that submission far fetched. The expression “Let him have it” meaning “kill him” was hardly an unusual one, and would have been well known to anyone who had been to see gangster films, particularly those imported from the United States of America.
It was suggested that there is other material which shows that D.C.I. Smith was not telling the truth in a material particular. This was a reference to the statement under caution made by the appellant which was said to have been taken entirely at his dictation without any questions being asked by the officers who took it. The appellant was illiterate and of low intelligence, which in itself, it was said, made dictation improbable, and it was argued that fresh evidence established that questions must have been asked.
We shall deal with that later, but any untruths told by D.C.I. Smith and D.S. Shepherd, who took the statement, cannot support a conclusion that all the other officers must therefore be regarded as unreliable. It was suggested that D.C.I. Smith might have dishonestly orchestrated this evidence. We would only comment that, as the discrepancies show, if he did, he made a poor job of it. There is in our judgment nothing in those submissions.
Anyway, if the three cops put the line in Bentley’s mouth –– and as you can see, the appeal itself doesn’t support that assertion, so I don’t get where the BBC et al got that — the semantic/ idiomatic arguments don’t really matter after all.
UPDATE: Wow, in England, even kids learn about this case. (It’s the “Scene of the Crime” unit.)