With my interest in Evadne Price rekindled by Matt Houlbrook’s biography of Netley Lucas, I thought I’d take a look at one of the novels she wrote after her stint as ‘Helen Zenna Smith’.
Red For Danger (1936) belongs to that quintessential inter-war genre, the comedy thriller. There is a plot based on crime, big business and international intrigue, but the action is seen through the eyes of a hapless Cockney taxi-driver who wants nothing to do with such things.
The novel is dedicated to Gordon Harker, the cockney actor who had starred in both the stage and film versions of The Phantom Light (based on Price’s novel, The Haunted Light)and, according to her, ‘achieved that rare thing – turned the hero of an author’s imagination into a living person.’ Harker would go on to play the morose taxi-driver Alfred Huggins when the book was filmed, and even in the novel most of the entertainment comes from the reactions of Huggins to the rather perfunctory plot, and from his relationship with Hetty Hopper, his belligerent and overpowering ex-girlfriend, who has a nice turn of phrase, especially when fulminating about Alf’s desertion of her:
‘You cad!’ she breathed. ‘I’ve a good mind to smash this over your face. Leaving me sitting on me bottom in that registry office like a poached egg what’s lost its toast.’
The intrigue is about oil concessions. A mysterious man gets shot, and it apparently vital that he be moved away from the country house where most of the action happens. Alf, unwillingly involved, does not know what is going on, and I suspect that the author had only the haziest idea. Even as Helen Zenna Smith, Evadne Price was much better at action and atmosphere than plot. In order to get this book moving, Price has to manipulate a ridiculous number of coincidences.
The book is told from Alf’s viewpoint, and the style has something in common with that of ‘Not So Quiet…’ – short declarative sentences expanding into a sense of headlong movement and physical action:
Driving was hell. Pedestrians lost their heads completely. White ambulances clanged their imperious passage-way from one accident to the next. Policemen cursed under their authoritative exteriors as freely as the lines of traffic they were with difficulty controlling. Street scavengers began to sweep up the rain into small tidal waves with wide brooms to ease the drains threatening to choke with the sudden rush of water.
This time, though, the style is used for comic effect; instead of the desperation of Helen Zenna Smith, we have the self-pity of Alf Huggins, fighting the weather, and also the tendency of passengers to try to leave him without paying.
It’s not a novel that has worn well. The intrigue is obscure, the comedy gets repetitive and too many of the dramatic situations are resolved by the old standby of someone entering, holding a gun.
Almost certainly it was written with stage and film in mind. As a film it became Blondes for Danger in 1938.
Gordon Harker starred, and it received positive notices, such as this one from Variety in the U.S. at a time when not many British films were appreciated there.
It became a stage play too, in Richmond in 1938, and elsewhere later. Evadne Price, who had left the stage in the early twenties for health reasons, returned for this production, to play the larger-than-life cockney girlfriend. The Stage liked her performance.
I was delighted to see this review of a Wolverhampton production in 1941, with its suggestion that Evadne Price is yet again being flexible with the truth, claiming that the play has specially and recently been composed just for Wolverhamptonians.