Happy birthday, Raymond Chandler!
Raymond Chandler was born on this day in 1888 in Chicago to an Irish mother who, when he was 8, took him to England -- his father, a railroad man, had split. Chandler later returned to America and made his way to Los Angeles back when the city was young, in 1913. He'd go on -- eventually -- to become of one of Los Angeles' finest crime writers. Or rather, finest writers, period.
The author of "The Big Sleep," "Farewell My Lovely" and "The Long Goodbye" didn't start writing until he was well into his 40s; his first book was published when he was 50 years old. In our pages, I wrote about what it's like sharing a birthday with Chandler, whose life choices could be troubling -- he drank so much he was fired from his job in as an oil executive -- but whose writing was iconic.
After seeing that article, writer Geoff Nicholson sent me a link to an amazing 1957 interview between Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler on the BBC. It was the first time I'd heard Chandler speak, a strange and marvelous experience. He's a little moody, a little distracted, and quite possibly drunk. The two were, apparently, sitting in the same studio in England.
Here are some of the Chandler-focused highlights from the interview, which was supposed to be a conversation between the two writers -- but Chandler lets Fleming do all the hard work.
Fleming starts things off: "In my mind, you don't write thrillers, and I do," he says. "You write novels of suspense."
"In America, a thriller, a mystery writer as we call them, is slightly below the salt," Chandler says (what a phrase: "below the salt"). When Fleming notes that Chandler's writing, with Dashiell Hammett's, is taken seriously, Chandler admits that maybe it is. "How long did it take me? You starve to death for 10 years before your publisher knows you're any good."
Fleming: Where do you get your material? Always a California setting ...
Chandler: Well, I lived many years in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles had never been written about. California had been written about -- a book called "Ramona," a lot of sentimental slop. But nobody in my time had tried to write about Los Angeles' background in any sort of realistic way. Of course now, half the writers in America live in California. (here Chandler cracks up, and it's a sort of backward-inhaling, self-aware laugh that seems trademarkedly geeky to me).
Fleming asks about Nathanael West, who Chandler insists came along much later -- which Fleming, who seems to realize that the onus is on him to make these 25 minutes of radio work, lets slide. In fact, the last of West's books, "The Day of the Locust," came out in 1939, the year Chandler's first novel, "The Big Sleep," was published.
The next line of questioning gets strange. Fleming mentions a killing in New York having to do with racketeering and the docks. "How is a killing like that arranged?" Fleming asks, as if Chandler, merely by nature of being an American crime writer, might know the inner workings of the New York mob. Chandler at first demurs, but, when pressed, starts spinning a tale -- and darned if I don't think he's just making it up, just fictionizing right on the spot. Fleming wants details, how much they get paid, whether the killers wear gloves. "How many fingerprints have been taken off guns?" scoffs Chandler. "Yes, quite," Fleming muses.
Fleming, unable to coax Chandler into asking him anything about his work, volunteers that he's just finished his next book. Chandler perks up, interested. "What's it called?" Fleming replies, with a kind of juicy excitement, "Goldfinger." It takes Chandler a few tries to get it, but we know it, and it's thrilling to imagine Fleming sitting there on another Bond masterpiece, rubbing his hands like a classic Bond villain, thinking, yes, yes, this one is going to be good.
Earlier, Chandler had said, "I don't ever in my own mind think anybody's a villain." Now, he takes a different tack, asking how Fleming can write so many books; Fleming says he writes a book each year during the two months he spends in Jamaica. "I can't write a book in two months," Chandler cries, almost offended.
Late in the discussion, Fleming asks directly if the Philip Marlowe character is based on Chandler himself. "Not deliberately," Chandler hedges. "If so, it just happened."
But earlier, Fleming was talking about leading men. "Your hero, Philip Marlowe, is a real hero. He behaves in a heroic fashion. My leading character, James Bond, I never intended him to be a hero. I intended him to be a blunt instrument wielded by a government department, who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less hoot his way out of them. He's always referred to him as my hero, but I don't see him as a hero myself."
"You ought to," Chandler replies. They talk about emotions in both characters, which Fleming says Marlowe has more of than Bond. "A man in his [Bond's] job can't afford tender emotions. He feels them, but he has to quell them." Chandler says. About Marlowe, he explains, "He's always confused," then you hear his chuffing laugh. Quietly, he adds, "He's like me."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Raymond Chandler in 1946. Credit: Associated Press