We take you back to 1958 when Ian Fleming, creator of the great spymaster character James Bond, meets up with Raymond Chandler, America’s foremost writer of hard-boiled detective fiction. The two authors, who read and admired each other’s work, sat down for drinks one day and got down to talking about villains (real and imagined) and their iconic literary characters. The BBC captured it all on audio (above). You can also find a transcript of the conversation on page 30 of this PDF. The conversation, which has a free flowing quality to it, runs 25 minutes. Get the remaining parts here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
In this unique interview recorded in 1958, the creators of two of the most durable heroes of the thriller genre sat down to discuss their work over a few drinks. They speak about the challenge of creating a believable villain, the challenge of dispassionately killing a man, and the reason Fleming feels obliged to have his creation, James Bond, tortured at least once each novel. Their distinct personalities and approaches are revealed almost instantly. Fleming is the eager student and Chandler, who sipped something cold from his glass throughout the talk, comes across as the cool operator, knowledgeable in the darker arts. Fleming is a good journalist. He takes notes whenever he travels to an exotic locale so that each Bond assignment is coloured with shades of authenticity. But as he points out later in the interview, Chandler has a more direct way of doing his own research. He knows, he says, how it feels to be banged on the head with the butt of a revolver.
IF: 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.
RC: I do too.
IF: I don’t call yours thrillers. Yours are novels.
RC: A lot of people call them thrillers.
IF: I know. I think it’s wrong.
RC: Oh, well I . . .
IF: 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 . . .
RC: Well, in America, a thriller, or a mystery story as we call them, is slightly below the salt.
IF: Yes, thriller writing is very below the salt really . . .
RC: 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.
IF: Yes, I know. That’s very true.
RC: Mostly. There’s no attempt to judge him as a writer.
IF: But you yourself are judged as a writer, and Dashiell Hammett was, I think . . .
RC: Well, yes, but how long did it take me? You starve to death for ten years before your publisher knows you’re any good [laughs].
IF: Well, yes, of course. Your first story is now a very valuable first edition. Where do you get your material? It’s nearly always a Californian setting, isn’t it? Has it ever not been a Californian setting?
RC: 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 a Los Angeles background in any sort of realistic way. Of course now, half the writers in America live in California [laughs].
IF: Well, Nathanael West did, I mean . . . didn’t he?
RC: Yes, but he came along much, much later.
IF: Yes, that’s quite true. As far as my material is concerned I’m afraid I just get mine by going to places and taking down copious notes because I can’t remember anything.
RC: Yes, but you’re an experienced journalist.
IF: I think that’s probably the answer. I mean, I learnt by writing . . .
RC: You can go to Las Vegas and you can get Las Vegas in a few days . . . except the iced water.
IF: [laughs] Oh yes, you complained about one of the meals James Bond ordered in Las Vegas. I described the meal and I didn’t get the waitress bringing in the iced water as the first thing . . .
RC: That amused me because the first thing you usually get in American restaurants is a glass of iced water, put down by the waitress or the busboy.
IF: Yes, but I rather pride myself on trying to get these details right.
RC: I don’t think any English writer has ever got as many right as you have. I mean, that stuff in Harlem was wonderful.
IF: Was it?
RC: I thought it was, and also in St Petersburg.
IF: I rather liked St Petersburg . . .
RC: I don’t think any American writer could have done it more accurately.
IF: 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. You meet them and come across them as well as plenty of heroines of course. But a really good solid villain is a very difficult person to build up, I think.
RC: In my own mind I don’t think I ever think anyone is a villain.
IF: No, that comes out in the book. But you’ve had some quite tough, villainous people there.
RC: Yes, they . . . yes.
IF: I see they had another killing last week in New York. One of these men connected with that dock union man – what’s his name?
RC: Albert Anastasia?
IF: Anastasia, yes. How’s a killing like that arranged?
RC: Very simply. [pause] You want me to describe how it’s done?
IF: Yes, yes.
RC: Well, first of all the syndicate has to decide if he must be killed, and they don’t want to kill people.
RC: It’s bad business nowadays.
RC: When they make the decision they telephone to a couple of chaps in, say, Minneapolis, in a hardware store or something – a respectful business front. These chaps come along to New York and they’re given their instructions and they’re given a photograph of the man and told what’s known about him. They’re given guns . . .
IF: In Minneapolis?
RC: No, not in Minneapolis. After they get their instructions they’re given guns. Now, these guns are not defaced in any way, but they are guns that have passed through so many hands that the present owners can never be traced. The company could only say the first purchaser. So, they go to where the man lives, and they get an apartment or a room across the street from him. They study him for days and days and days until they know just exactly when he goes out, and when he comes home, what he does. And when they’re ready, they simply walk up to him and shoot him. They have to have a crash car – Bugsy Siegel was a great man for the crash car. The crash car is in case a police car should come down the street, and it accidentally on purpose smashes the police car . . .
IF: Yes, I see what you mean.
RC: . . . so they get away. They get back on the plane and go home, and that’s all there is to it.
IF: They drop the guns at the spot, do they?
RC: They always drop the guns, yes.
IF: And wear gloves?
RC: Well, how many fingerprints have ever been taken off guns?
IF: Yes, quite.
RC: You gotta hold ’em by the butt . . .
IF: Yes, that’s quite true. Of course [fingerprints] always appear to be taken off in books, but I suspect that because by filing the material on the butt and scraping it well you make a rough surface that won’t take any prints at all.
RC: No, and butts aren’t made that way. They’re made to be rough . . .
IF: Yes, quite true. So, how much do these men get paid?
RC: Ten thousand.
IF: Ten thousand each?
RC: Yes, if it’s an important man. That’s small money to a syndicate.
IF: Yes. And then they go back to their jobs in hardware stores in Minneapolis?
RC: It’s quite impersonal. They don’t care about the man, don’t care if he’s dead or alive. It’s just a job to them. Of course they have to be a certain sort of person, or they wouldn’t do it. They’re not like us. We wouldn’t do it.
IF: No . . . difficult thing to imagine doing.
RC: Well, I’ve known people I’d like to shoot.
IF: Anybody in England?
RC: No, not in England.
IF: What do you want to shoot them for?
RC: I guess I thought they were better dead.
IF: Again to go back to villains. Of course, the difficulty is to 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.
RC: Well, it’s almost impossible to imagine an absolutely bad man who is not a psychopath.
IF: 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.
RC: 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.
IF: Well, you’ve got to know these people, you can’t invent them.
RC: [pause] You don’t find anyone really that’s all bad.
IF: Your hero, Philip Marlowe, is a real hero. He behaves in a heroic fashion. I never intended my leading character, James Bond, to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, or get out of them one way or another. But of course he’s always referred to as my hero. I don’t see him as a hero myself. On the whole I think he’s a rather unattractive man . . .
RC: You ought to . . .
IF: . . . ought to, I know. I’d certainly write about him with more feeling and more kindness probably.
RC: I think you did in Casino Royale.
IF: Do you?
IF: Well, I . . . yes, he had some emotions at the end, when the girl died.
RC: That’s all all right, but a man in his job can’t afford tender emotions.
IF: Well, that’s what I feel.
RC: He feels them but he has to quell them.
IF: Yes. On the other hand Philip Marlowe feels them and speaks about them.
RC: He’s always confused.
IF: He is, is he? [laughs]
RC: [laughs] He’s like me.
IF: I’ve managed to get an advance copy of your last book, the one that’s just coming out in paperback, and I’m very interested by this passage talking about violence and toughness and so on and so forth. It seems to me very well put. He’s gone into this girl’s bedroom having overheard her conversation as a blackmailer.
[Fleming begins to read from book] ‘She brought out a small automatic up from her side. I looked at it. “Oh guns”, I said, “Don’t scare me with guns. I’ve lived with ’em all my life, I’ve used an old Derringer, single shots, the kind the riverboat gamblers used to carry. As I got older I graduated to a lightweight sporting rifle then a 303 target rifle and so on. I once made a bull at 900 yards at open sight. In case you don’t know, the whole target looks the size of a postage stamp at 900 yards.” “A fascinating career,” she said. “Guns never settle anything,” I said. “They’re just a fast curtain to a bad second act.”’
[chuckles] I think that’s well put. But you see that is a far more sensible point of view than the one which I put forward in my books, where people are shooting each other so much and so often that you often need a programme to tell who is in the act and who is a spectator.
RC: Why do you always have to have a torture scene?
IF: Well . . . do I always? Yes, let me think now . . . maybe you’re right.
RC: Well, every one that I’ve read.
IF: Really? I suppose I was brought up on Dr Fu Manchu and thrillers of that kind and somehow always, even in Bulldog Drummond and so on, the hero at the end gets in the grips of the villain and he suffers, either he’s drugged or something happens to him . . .
RC: Well, next time, try brainwashing. Probably worse than torture.
IF: I think it is, yes. I don’t like to get too serious. This so-called hero of mine has a good time. He beats the villain in the end and gets the girl and he serves his government well. But in the process of that he’s got to suffer something in return for this success. I mean, what do you do, dock him something on his income tax? I really tire of the fact that the hero in other people’s thrillers gets a bang on the head with a revolver butt and he’s perfectly happy afterwards – just a bump on his head.
RC: That’s one of my faults – they recover too quickly. I know what it is to be banged on the head with a revolver butt. The first thing you do is vomit.
IF: It is, is it?
IF: Yes. Well, there you are. You see, that’s already getting violent and unattractive and so on. The truth is like that, you see. While there’s certainly criticism of my books that it comes in too often, I think my so-called hero has to suffer before he gets his prize at the end . . .
RC: Well, he’s got to suffer a little, that’s true, but . . .
IF: Not too much, eh? Well, he doesn’t get hurt in the next book which I’ve just written. Much.
RC: Have you?
RC: What’s it called?
IF: It’s called Goldfinger.
RC: How can you write so many books with all the other things you do?
IF: I have two months off in Jamaica every year. That’s in my contract with the Sunday Times, and I sit down and I write a book every year during those two months, and then I bring it back.
RC: I can’t write a book in two months.
IF: But then you write better books than I do.
RC: That may be or may be not, but I still can’t write a book in two months. The fastest book I ever wrote, I wrote in three months.
IF: Simenon writes them in about a week or ten days.
RC: Mm-hmm. And so could Erle Stanley Gardner.
RC: In fact, Edgar Wallace . . . I know a story about Edgar Wallace going to Hollywood, and they asked him if he would write an original story for a screenplay. They expected him to take about six weeks. This was on a Friday and he was back on Monday with it finished.
IF: I hope they paid him for the whole six weeks.
RC: I think it was a flat sum.
IF: I’m glad to hear it. But your man, your hero Philip Marlowe – is he based more or less on yourself, so to speak? I see a certain . . . in fact, I see a distinct relationship between you and Philip Marlowe.
RC: Oh, not deliberately. If so, it does happen.
IF: 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.
RC: Can you play baccarat as well as he can?
IF: Not as well, no. I’d like to be able to – I love it. I love gambling.
RC: I don’t enjoy gambling at all. It’s the only vice I don’t possess.
IF: Oh, come, come. There are plenty left, aren’t there?
RC: Well, it is the only vice I don’t possess. I have no interest in gambling.
IF: Would you say there are any basic differences between the English and the American thriller?
RC: Oh yes. An American thriller is much faster paced.
IF: We’ve got into a rather ‘tea and muffins’ school of writing here, I think. Policemen are much too nice and always drinking cups of tea, and inspectors puff away at pipes and the whole thing goes on in a rather sort of quiet atmosphere in some little village somewhere in England. Of course, you’ve got the private-eye tradition which we haven’t got so much over here because our private detectives are on the whole just ordinary people who go and follow married couples around and try to catch them out.
RC: Same as they are in America . . .
IF: Yes, but they’re written up to be much more.
RC: A private eye is a catalyst, a man who resolves the situation. He doesn’t exist in real life. Unless you can make him seem real. He doesn’t make any money either.
IF: Marlowe seems real to me – I mean I visualize him quite clearly.
RC: But that’s because I’ve known him so long. He’s not real as a specimen, as a private detective.
IF: I suppose the same thing applies to secret service agents. I’ve known quite a number of them, and on the whole they’re very quiet, peace-loving people whom you might meet in the street, sit next to them in your club, in fact two or three do sit next to me in my club . . .
RC: They must have an immense interior courage though.
IF: They must, because it a dull job and they get no thanks for it and they get no medals. Pretty dull on the wives too, they have a hard time, apart from the danger and all the rest of it. Are you planning any kind of new book now?
RC: I’ve got myself in a bad spot now.
IF: In what way?
RC: The fellow has to get married.
IF: He is? Marlowe’s going to get married, is he?
RC: Yes, but there’s going to be an awful struggle. So, she’s not going to like him sticking to his rather seedy profession as she thinks of it, and he is not at all going to like the way she wants to live, in an expensive house in Palm Springs with a lot of freeloaders coming in all the time. So, it’s going to be a struggle, it might end in divorce, I don’t know . . .
IF: Oh golly. You wouldn’t like to go and kill her off perhaps?
RC: Kill her?
RC: Oh no, she’s too nice.
IF: She is, is she? Linda, isn’t it?
RC: Yes, much too nice to kill off.
IF: Ah. Oh well. Well, I don’t think my fellow is going to get married.
RC: Of course if I had Marlowe killed off it would solve a lot of problems. I wouldn’t have to write any more books about him.
IF: I wonder what the basic ingredients of a good thriller really are. Of course, you should have pace; it should start on the first page and carry you right through. And I think you’ve got to have violence, I think you’ve got to have a certain amount of sex, you’ve got have a basic plot, people have got to want to know what’s going to happen by the end of it.
RC: 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.
IF: 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. I think basically we’re both of us to a certain extent humorous too, which possibly might not come out at first sight, but we like making funny jokes.
RC: ‘So and so’ is really rather a bore.
IF: Yes. Have you got any particularly favourite thriller writers, Ray? People you automatically buy more or less blind?
RC: No. I don’t have to buy them. They send them to me free.
IF: They do?
RC: The publishers do.
IF: You’re lucky. There aren’t enough good thrillers. For me, I like reading them in aeroplanes and trains. I find they’re wonderful kinds of books to pass the time with.
Well, anyway, thanks, Ray. It’s been lovely to see you again.
RC: Well, I love to see you always.