Archive | Notes on Raymond Chandler — Ian Fleming

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With the protagonists of their respective novels being so similar, it is perhaps little surprise that the writers Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler struck up a friendship in the 1950s. After Chandler’s death in 1959, Fleming wrote a long piece about his friend in our December 1959 issue. Never before reprinted, it has now been transcribed in full from our archive:

(I knew Raymond Chandler for about four years and these are all my memories of him, together with some random comments and reflections and most of the letters we exchanged. No many people knew Chandler, so I will not apologise for the for the triviality of our correspondence. It fitted in with our relationship – the half-amused, ragging relationship of two writers working on the same thin, almost-extinct literary seam, who like each others work. But I do apologise for dragging my own books and what he wrote about them into this biographical note. Unfortunately, there is no alternative. We came together over my books and not over his, and our friendship would not have existed without them.)

I first met Raymond Chandler at a dinner party given by Stephen and Natasha Spender some time in May 1955. He was just coming out of the long spell of drinking which followed the death of his wife. She died after a three years’ illness in their house at La Jolla, in California. When the police arrived they found Raymond Chandler in the sitting room firing his revolver through the ceiling. Chandler never recovered from the tragedy and, whatever the reality of his married life, his wife became a myth which completely obsessed the following years.

He sold his house in California and every scrap of furniture that reminded him of her and came to England, perhaps in one of those flights back to one’s youth and childhood (he was educated at Dulwich and worked for some time in London) that badly hurt people sometimes resort to.

He was very nice to me and said that he had liked my first book, Casino Royale, but he really didn’t want me to talk about anything much except the loss of his wife, about which he expressed himself with a nakedness that embarrassed me while endearing him to me. He showed me a photograph of her – a good-looking woman sitting in the sun somewhere. The only other snapshot in his note case was of a cat which he had adored. The cat had died within weeks of his wife’s death and this had been a final blow.

He must have been a very good-looking man but the good, square face was puffy and unkempt with drink. In talking, he never ceased making ugly, Hapsburg lip grimaces while his head stretched away from you looking along his right or left shoulder as if you had bad breath. When he did look at you he saw everything and remembered days later to criticize the tie or the shirt you had been wearing. Everything he said had authority and a strongly individual slant based on what one might describe as a Socialistic humanitarian view of the world. We took to each other and I said that I would send him a copy of my latest book and that we must meet again.

Chandler had taken a flat in Eaton Square and he rang me up in a few days to say that he enjoyed my book and asked if I would like him to say so for the benefit of my publishers.

Rather unattractively, I took him up on this suggestion and wrote to him on May 26th:

‘Your elegant writing paper makes you sound very much at home, and I shall call you up next week and see if you would like to walk round the corner and pay us a visit…

‘I wouldn’t think of asking you to write to me about Moonraker but if you happen to feel in a mood of quixotic generosity, a word from you which I could pass on to my publishers would make me the fortune which has so far eluded me.

‘Incidentally The Spectator is almost girlishly thrilled that you will do The Riddle of the Sands for them and the things you said to me and I published about Princes Bookshop have brought Francis a flood of new business. So the impact you are having on London is that of Father Christmas in Springtime.’

The first sentence of his reply of June 4th contained some very kind words. He went on:

‘Peter Cheyney wrote one good book, I thought, called Dark Duet, and another fairly good one, but his pseudo-American tough-guy stories always bored me. There was also James Hadley Chase, and I think the less said of him the better. Also, in spite of the fact that you have been everywhere and seen everything, I cannot help admiring your courage in tackling the American scene…

‘If this is any good to you would you like me to have it engraved on a gold slab?’

I answered:

June 6th, 1955

‘These are words of such gold that no supporting slab is need and I am passing the first sentence on to Macmillan’s in New York and Cape’s here, and will write my appreciation in caviar when the extra royalties come in.

‘Seriously, it was extraordinarily kind of you to have written as you did and you have managed to make me feel thoroughly ashamed of my next book, which is also set in America, but in an America of much more fantasy than I allowed myself in Live and Let Die.

‘There’s a moratorium at home at the moment as the Duke of Westminster (whom may God preserve) has ordered us to paint the outside of our house and the whole thing is hung with cradles and sounds of occasional toil.

‘But they will be gone in a few days time and I hope you will be one of the first to darken our now gleaming doorway.’

I wanted him to come to lunch to meet my wife, who had not been at the Spender’s, and at last it was arranged.

The luncheon was not a success. The Spenders were there and Rupert Hart-Davis and Duff Dunbar, a lawyer friend of mine and a great Chandler fan. Our small dining room was overcrowded. Chandler was a man who was shy of houses and ‘entertaining’ and our conversation was noisy and about people he did not know. His own diffident and rather halting manner of speech made no impact. He was not made a fuss of and I am pretty sure he hated the whole affair.

Almost a year later he was back again in England and Leonard Russell invited him to review my next book, Diamonds are Forever, for the Sunday Times. It was the first review Chandler had ever written. I quote these extracts to show the sharp, ironical mind:

‘Later there is a more detailed, more fantastic, more appalling description of Las Vegas and it’s daily life. To a Californian, Las Vegas is a cliché. You don’t make it fantastic because it was designed that way, and it is funny rather than terrifying… and of course Mr Bond finally has his way with the beautiful girl. Sadly enough his beautiful girls have no future because it is the curse of the “series character” that he always has to go back to where he began… The trouble with brutality in writing is that it has to grow out of something. The best hard-boiled writers will never try to be tough, they allow the toughness to happen when it seems inevitable for its time, place and conditions… These are pages in which James Bond thinks. I don’t like James Bond thinking. His thoughts are superflous. I like him when he is in the dangerous card game; I like him when he is exposing himself unarmed to half a dozen thin-lipped killers, and neatly dumping them into a heap of fractured bones; I like him when he finally takes the beautiful girl in his arms, and teaches her about one-tenth of the facts of life she knew already… But let me plead with Mr Fleming not to allow himself to become a stunt writer, or he will end up no better than the rest of us.’

I wrote and thanked him for the review and there was this exchange of letters:

April 11th, 1956

‘Dear Ian,

‘Thank you so much for your letter of Wednesday and if the payment for my outstanding review had been received a little earlier I should have been able to eat three meals a day.

‘I thought my review was no more than you deserved and I tried to write in such a way that the good part could be quoted and the bad parts left out. After all, old boy, there had to be some bad parts. I think you will have to make up your mind what kind of writer you are going to be. You could be almost anything except that I think you are a bit of a sadist!

‘I am not in any Hampstead hospital. I am at home and if they ever put me in a hospital again I shall walk out leaving corpses strewn behind me, except pretty nurses.

‘As for having lunch with you, with or without butler, I can’t do it yet – because even if I were much better than I am I should be having lunch with ladies.’

I replied on the 27th of April:

‘Dear Ray,

‘Many thanks for the splendid Chandleresque letter. Personally I loved your review and thought it was excellent as did my publishers, and as I say it was really wonderful of you t have taken the trouble.

‘Probably the fault of my books is that I don’t take them seriously enough and meekly accept having my head ragged off about them in the family circle… You after all write “novels of suspense” – if not sociological studies – whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.

‘But I have taken your advice to heart and will see if I can’t order my life so as to put more feeling into my typewriter.

‘Incidentally, have you read A Most Contagious Game, by Samuel Grafton, published by Rupert Hart-Davis?

‘Sorry about lunch even without a butler. I also know some girls and will dangle one in front of you one of these days.

‘I had no idea that you were ill. If you are, please get well immediately. I am extremely ill with sciatica.’

May 1st, 1956

‘Dear Ian,

‘I am leaving London on May 11th and should very much like to see you before I go. I suggest that we have lunch together at one of your better Clubs if you can arrange it.

‘I don’t think you do yourself justice about James Bond and I did not think that I quite did you justice in my review of your book, because anyone who writes as dashingly as you do, ought, I think, to try for a little higher grade. I have just re-read Casino Royale and it seems to me that you have dis-improved with each book.

‘I read several books by Samuel Grafton, but the one you mention I don’t know; I will order it.

‘I don’t want any girls dangling in front of me, because my girls do their own dangling and they would be extremely bitter to have you interfere.

‘You know what you can do with your sciatica don’t you?’

He then went off abroad. Since the death of his wife, he was lost without women and, in the few years I knew him, he was never without some good-looking companion to mother him and try and curb his drinking. These were affectionate and warm-hearted relationships and probably nothing more. Though I do know this, I suspect that each woman was, in the end, rather glad to get away from the ghost of the other woman who always walked at his side and from the tired man who made sense for so little of the day.

In June he wrote to me from New York:

June 9th, 1956

‘I didn’t like leaving England without saying good-bye to the few friends I knew well enough to care about, but then I don’t little saying good-bye at all, especially when it may be quite a long time before I come back. As you probably know, I long overstayed the six months allowed, but I had a compelling reason, even if I got hooked for British income tax. I am also likely to lose half my European royalties, which isn’t funny. It’s all a little obscure to me, but there it is. And it doesn’t matter whether your stay in England is broken half a dozen times. If the time adds up to over six months within the fiscal year, you are it.

‘I am looking forward to your next book. I am also looking forward to my next book.

‘I rather liked New York this time, having heretofore loathed its harshness and rudeness. For one thing the weather has been wonderful, only one hot day so far and that not unbearable. I have friends here, but not many. Come to think of it, I haven’t many anywhere. Monday night I am flying back to California and this time I hope to stick it out and make some kind of a modest but convenient home there.

‘I am wondering what happened to all the chic pretty women who are supposed to be typical of New York. Damned if I’ve seen any of them. Perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places, but I do have a feeling that New York is being slowly downgraded.

‘Please remember me to Mrs Fleming if you see her and if she remembers me (doubtful). And how is His Grace the Duke of Westminster these days? Painting lots of houses, I hope?’

He also sent me an almost illegible letter about an earlier book I had written called Live and Let Die.

We exchanged letters:

June 22nd, 1956

‘Dear Ray,

‘How fine to get not one but two letters from you – and one of them legible at that. I hope you have left a fowarding address with the Grosvenor or otherwise will think me even more churlish than you already do.

‘I simply cannot understand your tax position and I certainly do not believe that we will try and squeeze your European royalties out of you for over-staying your time a little. If it looks like something fierce of that kind, please let me know and I will make an impassioned appeal on your behalf.

‘Eric Ambler has a new thriller coming out next week, which no doubt will Prince’s Bookshop will send you. If not, I will. It is better than the last two, but still not quite as good as the good old stuff we remember. I have done a review for the Sunday Times headed “Forever Ambler” which struck me as a god joke.

‘My own muse is in a bad way. Despite your doubts, I really rather like Diamonds are Forever… It has been very difficult to make Bond go through his tricks in From Russia, With Love, which is just going to the publishers.

‘Shall be in and around New York and Vermont for the first fortnight in August and, in the unlikely event you should happen to be in reach of the area, please let me or the Macmillans, New York, know and we will share a Coke in which the contents of a benzedrine inhaler have been soaked overnight. Which, I understand, is the fashionable drink in your country at the moment.’

July 4th, 1956

‘Dear Ian,

‘I have already ordered Eric Ambler’s new thriller since he told me about it some time before it came out. I think the title of you review, “Forever Amber” is a pretty good joke in the third class division.

‘Of course I liked Diamonds are Forever and I enjoyed reading it, but I simply don’t think it is worthy of you talents.

‘It is unlikely that I shall be in New York or Vermont in August. It is much more likely that I shall be in Paris. Frankly a Coke in which the contents of a benzedrine inhaler has been soaked overnight hasn’t reached La Jolla. What does it do to you? The fashionable drink in this country is still Scotch.’

July 11th, 1956

‘Dear Ray,

‘I cannot believe that you will end up having trouble over your tax problems here. Our tax gatherers do not come down hard on the foreign visitor, and I am sure they will accept your medical alibi. I strongly advise you not to worry about the problem until faced with some kind of demand.

‘As for my opera, you are clearly living under a grave misapprehension. My talents are extended to their absolute limits in writing books like Diamonds are Forever. I am not short-weighting anybody and I have absolutely nothing more up my sleeve. The way you talk, anybody would think I was a lazy Shakespeare or Raymond Chandler. Not so.

‘My only information to help you on your Paris visit is that on Thursdays, in the night club below the Moulin Rouge, there is an amateur strip-tease which might bring a flicker even to your worldly eyes. But I have not sampled it, so this information is not guaranteed.

‘Now get on with writing your book and stop picking your nose and staring out of the window.’

 Whenever we were together, I would try and make him write, but the truth of the matter was that it had nearly all gone out of him and that he simply could not be bothered. He had an idea for a play, though I do not know what it was about, and he finally put together his last book Playback, which began splendidly and then petered off into a formless jumble of sub-plots, at the end of which Philip Marlowe is obviously going to marry a rich American woman living in Paris. I asked Chandler if this marriage would come off and he said he supposed it would. This would be the end of Marlowe. She would come along and sack his secretary and redecorate his office and make him change his friends. She would be so rich that there would be no point in Marlowe working any more and he would finally drink himself to death. I said that this would make an excellent plot and that perhaps he could save Marlowe by making Mrs Marlowe drink herself to death first.

I pulled his leg about his plots, which always seemed to me to go wildly astray. What holds the books together and makes them so compulsively readable, even to alpha minds who would not normally think of reading a thriller, is the dialogue. There is a throw-away, down-beat quality about Chandler’s dialogue, whether wise-cracking or not, that takes one happily through chapter after chapter in which there is no more action than Philip Marlowe driving his car and talking to his girl, or a rich old woman consulting her lawyer on the sun porch. His aphorisms were always his own. ‘Lust ages men but keeps women young’ has stuck in my mind.

Mr Francis, Chandler’s bookseller in London and one of his closest English friends, told me that in the old days, before Mr Chandler died, Chandler would carry on a non-stop, ironical commentary on people and books and Fate in exactly Philip Marlowe’s tone of voice. He corresponded a lot with Francis and I have have borrowed the letter in which he talks about his particular craft.

October 30th, 1952

‘… As to Maugham’s remarks about the decline and fall of the detective story, in spite of his flattering references to me, I do not agree with his thesis. People have been burying the detective story for at least two generations, and it is still very much alive, although I do admit the term “detective story” hardly covers the field anymore, since a great deal of the best stuff written nowadays is only slightly if at all concerned with the elucidation of the mystery. What we have is more in the nature of the novel of suspense. I’m going to write him a long letter one of these days and take up the argument with him. I may even write an article in reply if anybody wants to print it. I should have valued his references to Philip Marlowe even more if he had remembered to spell Marlowe’s name correctly. Some of this stuff of Maugham’s was published a long time ago. The fascinating and acid little vignette of Edith Wharton for example was published in the Saturday Evening Post, and I still have the tear sheets (I think) from the issue. And I seem to recall that Edmund Wilson took rather nasty issue with Maugham about Maugham’s claim that the writers of straight novels had largely forgotten how to tell a story. I hate to agree with… Edmund Wilson, but I think he was right on this point. I don’t think the quality in the detective or mystery story which appeals to people has very much to do with the story a particular book has to tell. I think what draws people is a certain emotional tension which takes you out of yourself without draining yourself too much. They allow you to live dangerously without any real risk. They are something like those elaborate machines which they used to use and probably still do use to accustom student pilots to the sensation of aerial acrobatics. You can do anything from a wing-over to an Immelmann in them without ever leaving the ground and without any danger of going into a flat spin out of control. Well, enough of that for now.’

Around Christmas, 1957, I got one of those giant postcards ‘From the World-famous Palm Canyon’ in the Colorado Desert. This was hastily followed by another in which he suggested that I had teased O., his companion of the year before, about their journey together abroad. I wrote back on November 29th, 1957:

‘Why do they think that Palm Canyon is “world-famous”? What world do these people frequent?

‘It was fine to see your gusty script again and to know that you are still alive, and I heartily approve your plan to move over here. Perhaps you will get so bored here that you will be forced to get on with that long-overdue book.

‘Naturally I never rag O. about you. She’s been telling tales. She is a wonderful girl and I guess you are very good for each other.

‘Hurry up and come along.’

He came back to London in the Spring and we saw more of each other. He was in a bad way, drinking heavily. Like other heavy drinkers, he had been told to stick to wine instead of spirits and he consumed innumerable bottles of hock which cannot have been good for his liver. We had lunch together at Coulestin’s one day with the charming English literary agent with whom he was proposing to go to Tangier to get some sunshine. I told him that I had been to Tangier in April and that it had rained the whole time. I persuaded him that he should go to Capri instead. The idea came to me that he should meet Lucky Luciano in Naples and write a piece about him for the Sunday Times. I thought this would be a great scoop and I took a lot of pains arranging the meeting. The whole thing was a failure. They duly met in a hotel in Naples which is Luciano’s favourite hideout and Chandler completely succumbed to Luciano’s hard-luck story. Chandler had an extremely warm and sentimental heart, just as Philip Marlowe attractively has in the books. Luciano admitted that he had laid himself open to prosecution, but said that he had been made a fall-guy by the then District-Attorney because he had the right sort of gangsterish name, because the big boys were too hard to tackle, and because plenty of convictions, of which Luciano’s was one, would be good for the political careers of some of the Government officials involved.

Chandler wrote a lengthy article of this theme. It did not contain any of the visual reporting I had hoped for and nothing of the drama of the meeting between these two men. Instead, it was a long exculpation of Luciano and a plea for a cleaner Government. This was sheer bad writing and, since it would not suit the Sunday Times or America, I doubt if it has ever been published.

When Chandler came back a month later he was full of the idea of writing a play about a wronged gangster. This would have been very much in Chandler’s later vein and I did all I could to encourage him, but he refused to go forward with the idea until he had obtained Luciano’s sanction. It was again typical of him that, although he need not have involved Luciano’s name or the details of his case in any way, he felt the man had been kicked around enough and must now be treated gently. Luciano replied that he would rather Chandler did not write this story and that was that.

About this time, Chandler and I were booked to give a 20-minute broadcast for the BBC on ‘The Art of Writing Thrillers’. When the day came, it was very difficult to get him to the studio and when I went to pick him up at about eleven in the morning his voice was slurred with whisky.

However, the broadcast went off alright because I kept out of the act and concentrated on leading him along with endless questions. Many of Chandler’s replies had to be erased from the tape and, in particular, I remember that, in discussing Mickie Spillane and his retreat to expiate his ‘guilt’ into the arms of the Seventh Day Adventists, Chandler commented ‘in a way, it’s a shame. That boy was the greatest aid to solitary sin (he used a blunt word for it) in literature.’ Later he apologized to the two pretty girls in the control room and one of them said, ‘It’s quite alright, Mr Chandler, we hear much worse things than that.’

At lunch together that day we talked about our writing techniques. While waiting for him, I had jotted down some questions on the back of Boulestin’s cocktail price list (from which I now note with surprise that a Sidecar costs 6s. 6d.). I could not think of anything except the usual stock questions. He said he wrote his books in long-hand, very slowly and going back again and again over what he had written the day before. He often got stuck for weeks and even months. I said I could not do any correcting until the book was finished. If I looked back at what I had written the day before I would be so appalled by its badness that I would give up. He commented that my system probably gave the book pace which he regarded as the most important quality of any thriller. He worked, as one can see, endlessly over his dialogue and most of the wise-cracks, as one can also see, were his own. He did not work to a particular routine a day, but in sprints and often sat up all night and kept going. The Big Sleep, which first made him famous, had been written quickly in about two months and this had made him the most money because it written before taxation killed the rich writer. It was also made into a film and he had earned enough to retire on through it. He agreed that Dashiell Hammett was his first love among thriller writers and that he had learnt most from him and Hemingway. Hammett, he said, had never let his work decline. He had just written himself out like an expended firework and that was that. In the end, said Chandler, as one grew older, one grew out of gangsters and blondes and guns and, since they were the chief ingredients of thrillers, short of space fiction, that was that. He picked his names from the Las Angeles telephone directory and his chief source of inspiration was a particular friend in the Las Angeles Police Department. (He told me his name but I have forgotten it.) Marlowe? Well yes, one put a certain amount of oneself into one’s hero because one knew more about oneself than anybody else, but he also put his own unattractive traits into his gangsters and other subsidiary characters. The women were just women he had seen on the streets or met at parties. He would never kill Marlowe because he liked him and other people seemed to like him and it would be unkind to them.

That was the last time I saw him or heard from him. I went abroad and, when I came came back, I heard that he had had D.T.s and had gone back to California. Such news as I had of him remained bad and it was only a week before his death that I called on our mutual friend, Mr Francis, of Prince’s Arcade Bookshop, who had a permanent order to supply Chandler blind with any book that caught Francis’s fancy. I told him I had sent Chandler a copy of my last book and asked him what else he had sent. Francis told me that he had not sent anything for months. He had not been asked to do so. We agreed that this was the worst news we had heard. ‘That’s bad,’ I said and left the bookshop thinking that it was, in fact, very bad news indeed.

The long and perceptive obituary in The Times would have given him real pleasure. I wish I had been the author so that I could have repaid him for the wonderful tribute he had written out of the kindness of his heart for me and my publishers. How pleased he and his publishers would have been with the final sentence in The Times: ‘His name will certainly go down among the dozen or so mystery writers who were also innovators and stylists; who, working the common vein of crime fiction, mined the gold of literature.’