On July 10, 1958 two friends sat down for a good natured and genial chat. The men’s thoughts on life, writing, and admiration for each other were captured for posterity on BBC Radio. Their names? Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler. No introduction is needed here. Their novels conjure up images of mythical worlds of fantastic espionage and the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. CASINO ROYALE and GOLDFINGER can sit comfortably on the same bookshelf with THE BIG SLEEP (1939) and THE LONG GOODBYE (1953) any day.
The characters of secret agent James Bond and detective Philip Marlowe on the surface don’t seem to have much in common, but if you scratch a little deeper they share more common literary DNA than one would think. At their core they are reflections of their flawed and very human creators. Creators who met each other at crucial times in their lives and, in the process, forged an unlikely friendship.
This recording has its initial origins not on a covert MI6 mission to a seedy L.A. cocktail lounge but, at a simple dinner party. According to John Pearson’s biography THE LIFE OF IAN FLEMING (1966), Fleming had been invited to the household of magazine editor Stephen Spender. Chandler, as you might expect, was in attendance. The British-born American has been taking a sabbatical from the United States after the death of his wife in La Jolla, California. While Fleming initially described Chandler as “puffy and unkempt with drink,” his thoughts gradually turned more sentimental with this revealing quote:
“He was very nice to me and said he had liked my first book, CASINO ROYALE, but didn’t really want to talk about anything much except the loss of his wife, about which he expressed himself with a nakedness that embarrassed me while endearing me to him.”
This inauspicious beginning eventually led to a mutual admiration society between the two men during Chandler’s stay in London. An admiration that was nearly derailed when Fleming hosted a rather unsuccessful lunch in honor of Chandler at his home. As the more refined guests arrived, Chandler showed up late for the luncheon, and, to put it mildly, was slightly drunk. Fleming’s wife, Anne, later commented that “Chandler was quite incoherent, and afterward Ian said he was never going to bring anyone home again.” While Fleming’s good intentions were for naught, their friendship somehow survived and Chandler still had an important part to play with not only Ian Fleming, but 007 himself.
Soon after this disastrous lunch Chandler returned to the United States, and Fleming was left alone for a period to ponder the literary merits of his famous creation. MOONRAKER (1955) had come and gone, and while he felt that the manuscript for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956) surpassed it in quality, seeds of doubt began to creep into his mind about how much longer he could go on.
Most likely, as Pearson asserts, Fleming’s increasing lack of interest in all things Bond may have been linked to the difficulties he was experiencing drumming up greater interest in his books within the American publishing and film markets. In fact, things were getting so dire for our hero that Fleming was devising ways in which 007 would indeed finally meet his demise at the hands of SMERSH. That was until a certain Mr. Chandler had something to say about it. After having read LIVE AND LET DIE (1954), Chandler had expressed interest in endorsing it for Fleming’s publishers and in doing so gave Fleming the proverbial “shot in the arm” that he obviously needed. In a letter of thanks to Chandler for his effort, Fleming gives an unusually heartfelt response:
“Seriously, it extraordinarily kind of you to have written as you did, and you have managed to make me thoroughly ashamed of my next book which is also set in America, but in an America that is much more fantasy than I allowed myself in LIVE AND LET DIE.”
An eventual glowing review of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER by Chandler in the Sunday Times was not just the icing on the cake for a reinvigorated Fleming, but a new lease on life for 007.The events described above naturally lend themselves to some intriguing questions of their own. Why is it that a man nearing the end of his own life, despondent and addicted to alcohol, was the creative spark and mentor Fleming needed at just the right and crucial time? Had Fleming not met Chandler would 007’s impact on the world be as large as it is today?
It eventually took poet, novelist, and BBC “Talks Producer” George MacBeth to bring these two giants together for an on-air interview. The occasion? Chandler’s newest and final Marlowe novel PLAYBACK (1958). The theme? American versus British Thrillers. The recording itself? That’s another story. Chandler was due to be picked up that day by Fleming and MacBeth. However, as Fleming later recounted Chandler apparently had other plans:
“When the day came, it was very difficult to get Ray into the studio and when I came to pick him up at about eleven in the morning, his voice was slurred with whisky.”
Once situated in the studio the interview began. Chandler’s voice, due to drinking, is sometimes unintelligible. However, the highlight is really just the fact that we are hearing his voice at all. Unlike with Fleming, this interview is considered to be the only known recording of Chandler’s voice and, for that reason alone, it’s worth any mystery lover’s attention.
What follows are two masters of their craft cutting through the heart of the matter, and the booze, to figure out what it is they exactly do. While Fleming carries the bulk of the conversation, a lot can be taken from Chandler’s clipped but meaningful comments. Rather than explaining it you, let’s let them to do the talking.
Fleming: Well, the first thing, really, is to define what we’re supposed to be talking about. I think the title of what we’re supposed to be talking about is English and American thrillers. What is a thriller? To my mind of course, you don’t write thrillers and I do.
Chandler: I do too.
Fleming: I don’t call yours thrillers. Yours are novels.
Chandler: A lot of people call them thrillers.
Fleming: I know. I think it’s wrong. I mean you write novels of suspense like Simenon does and like Eric Ambler does perhaps, but in which violence is the background, just as love might be in the background of the ordinary or the straight kind of novel.
Chandler, lamenting the lack of respect paid to thriller writers, succinctly comments:
Chandler: You can write a long, very lousy historical novel full of sex and it can be a bestseller and be treated respectfully. But, a very good thriller writer, who writes far, far better, just gets a little paragraph of course.
Topics fly by at a brisk pace with everything from Fleming’s methods of research, Chandler relating what it’s like to be hit with a butt of a gun, how long it takes each to write a book, to the intimate knowledge Chandler shows of how crime syndicates carry out the delicate business of murder. But, always at the eclectic interview’s core and what stands out the most is the camaraderie between the two men, and the respectful deference that Fleming pays Chandler. However their status as equals is more than apparent as the conversation’s momentum builds.
Fleming: I don’t know if you do, but I find it extremely difficult to write about villains. Villains are extremely difficult people to put my finger on. You can often find heroes wandering around life… But, a really good solid villain is a very difficult person to build up, I think.
Chandler: In my own mind, I don’t think I ever think anyone is a villain.
Later, Fleming elaborates further on the topic with Chandler:
Fleming: Of course the difficulty is set in oneself, and to be able to persuade the reader, that the man is not to be pitied for being a sick man. It’s difficult to depict somebody who really is tough without being a psychopath.
Chandler: Well, it’s almost impossible to imagine an absolutely bad man who is not a psychopath.
Fleming: True. And then you create pity for him at once. It’s difficult and that’s what I mean about villains. They’re very difficult people to build up.
Chandler: Well, he’ll have this very human side. He may be very kind to his family, but in his business, illegitimate, he may be quite ruthless.
The age old argument of how creations are shadows of their authors is touched upon in a playful exchange of wit and warmth between the two:
Fleming: But your man, your hero Philip Marlowe, is he based more or less on yourself, so to speak? I see certain, in fact, I see a distinct relationship between you and Philip Marlowe.
Chandler: Oh, not deliberately. If so, it does happen.
Fleming : I suppose my chap has got some foibles that I’ve got, but I wouldn’t have said he had any relation to the person I think I am, but there it is.
Chandler: Can you play baccarat as well as he can?
Fleming: Not as well, no. I’d like to be able to, I love it. I love gambling.
Chandler: I don’t enjoy gambling at all. It’s the only vice I don’t possess.
Fleming: Oh, come, come. There are plenty left, aren’t there?
Pace, Violence, Sex, and Plot! These are the key elements that Fleming feels are at the center of all good thrillers:
Chandler: Yes, I agree. There has to be an element of mystery, in fact there has to be a mysterious situation. The detective doesn’t know what it’s all about, he knows that there’s something strange about it, but he doesn’t know just what it’s all about. It seems to me that the real mystery is not who killed Sir John in his study, but what the situation really was, what the people were after, what sort of people they were.
Fleming: That’s exactly what you write about, of course. You develop your characters very much more than I do, and the thriller element it seems to me in your books is in the people, the character building, and to a considerable extent in the dialogue. Which of course I think is some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today…
Time flies, and as quickly as the interview began it ends. However, believe it or not for over thirty years tapes of the interview were suppressed within the BBC Archives and its existence was a mystery unto itself. What were the reasons? Well, that’s up for conjecture, but it is widely assumed that Chandler’s condition at the time was the most likely suspect. Its eventual transcription in a 1991 issue of the Australian mystery magazine “Mean Streets” brought it to greater prominence, but the origins of their source were murky at best. However, with the advent of the internet, all this is a moot point as the BBC Archives has relented and now has a pristine version for the public to listen to online.
Ultimately, the recording is a moment in time for both authors. The two men never saw each other again, and for Chandler time was growing short. His death seven months later not only brought an end to a friendship that renewed Fleming’s zest and passion for writing, but brought to Chandler some happiness in the final turbulent years of his life. The final words in the interview sum things up quite appropriately:
Fleming: Well, anyway, thanks, Ray. It’s been lovely to see you again.
Chandler: Well, I love to see you always.
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