Someone, somewhere, has probably written a thesis on fan letters, showing how the turn of phrase, spelling, sentence structure and language, reveal the psychology of the writer. I can guess the flaws my intense three or four fan letters reveal about me, both good and bad. That said, the replies were always pleasing – a signed photo, a message from a secretary, a written response. The reply that meant so much to me, in my mid-teens, came from the brilliant author, Derek Marlowe.
Marlowe inspired me to see the beauty of writing and the power a novelist has in telling their tale. His books took me away from the comfort of Sherlock Holmes, Alistair MacLeans, and dog-eared ghost stories, into a world of shifting ambiguous, complex relationships, through dark, witty stories told in beautiful language.
Marlowe’s response to my Biro scribbled missive was a typed, two page letter, in lower case and capitals. It is a letter I still cherish, for it gave me a sense of what can be made of a life – for Derek Marlowe was more than just a novelist, he was a successful playwright, a screenwriter, and an award-winning writer for television. In the letter he explained about his life and career, how he had started after being sent down from University:
“I was thrown out of Queen Mary College, London, for editing and writing an article in the college magazine. The article was a parody of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ reflecting the boredom of college seminars. Not very funny or special but times were odd then. Besides, I hated University and I think I’d made that rather too clear.
“I began writing plays since I had started a play for the College which took a surprising course. Continued with plays for about four years, went to Berlin, came back and then I realised, after writing DANDY (I was then a clerk) that I preferred prose to theatre. Besides, the person I was sharing the flat with and had done for six years, seemed better at theatre than me. He was and is Tom Stoppard.”
‘A Dandy in Aspic’ was Marlowe‘s first novel, and the one that launched him onto his successful career. It was the story of a double-agent, Eberlin, sent on a mission to assassinate his alter ego. ‘Dandy’ was made into a a so-so film starring Laurence Harvey, Mia Farrow and Peter Cook, of which he wrote:
“Regarding the film DANDY. The director, ANTHONY MANN died during the filming (a superb man and great director) and it was taken over by Laurence Harvey, the badly cast Eberlin. He directed his own mis-talent, changed it and the script – which is rather like Mona Lisa touching up he portrait while Leonardo is out of the room.”
Rather than follow the expected path of genre-writing, Marlowe followed up his debut novel, with ‘Memoirs of a Venus Lackey’, the disturbing tale of a roue, who examined the sins of his life from Hell.
Next, an historical novel ‘A Single Summer with L.B.’, which focussed on the fateful meeting in 1816, when Mary and Percy Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, a gathering that inspired the writing of ‘Frankenstein’. In the book, Marlowe gave thanks to Ken Russell (amongst others), who would later make his own particular version of these events in ‘Gothic’.
Marlowe returned to thrillers with ‘Echoes of Celandine’, which dealt with the loves, infidelities and obsessions of a melancholic hitman. Of this he wrote:
“ECHOES OF CELANDINE has just been filmed, starring Donald Sutherland and John Hurt (as Atkinson), David Warner (as Burbage) etc. It’s very good but held up by squabbling producers.”
The film wasn’t what I had expected, its location moved from Britain to Canada, and I found it too ponderous, and filled with an imposed alienation. Yet, there was still something of Marlowe in the film.
“About the novels. All characters are close or have been observed in some element of truth. One book went too far and I was sued for libel – but I shan’t reveal which one it was. Loner and anti-hero? Loner, certainly – even though I am married with four stepchildren and one son of my own – but not anti-hero. I’m for heroes, though if not Lancelot or Tristan, heroes appear out of the mould of the time.”
He followed ‘Echoes’ with ‘Do You Remember England?’ – a haunting novel about a doomed love affair. Reading it, I thought this book closest to who Marlowe was. The character of Dowson had the mix of his parentage – a Greek Mother, a Cockney father -and I sensed that like Dowson, in some way, Marlowe was a man who belonged to a different century. For Marlowe seemed a true Romantic, and to an extent a dandy, but I doubt he would have agreed with that. Yet, it should be noted that one of his heroes was Beau Brummell, whose biography he penned for the Dictionary of National Biography.
Another hero was Raymond Chandler, and it was Chandler who inspired Marlowe’s 1974 homage ‘Somebody’s Sister’, about a washed up PI, Walter Brackett. Then the haunting ‘Nightshade’ in 1976, about a mis-matched couple on a dark and disturbing holiday to Haiti. Of the central character, Marlowe wrote:
“Edward in NIGHTSHADE is an aberration in my character. I was going through stage of mysoginism (sic) and even misanthropy.”
At the time of writing he had just completed ‘The Rich Boy From Chicago’ and a 9-part series on Nancy Astor for the BBC:
“My next novel to be published in the winter in hardback, is called THE RICH BOY FROM CHICAGO – a five hundred pager, I’m afraid – but I think in this novel you will see the quintessence of all I have written.
“If you read RICH BOY FROM CHICAGO, you might detect in the charcater of Freddie, the protagonist and the life of Bax, a combination that could be me, good or bad.”
‘The Great Gatsby’ was Marlowe’s favourite book, and Fitzgerald’s influence can be seen in ‘Rich Boy’ and, more importantly, throughout Marlowe’s work. Both writers were incredible stylists, both were Catholics and both captured the time they lived in perfectly.
After his divorce, Marlowe moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote for TV (series and films as diverse as ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Jamaica Inn’). His final work for TV was an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ – ‘South by South-West’. Tired with LALAland, Marlowe planned to return to England to finish his tenth novel, ‘Black and White’, but he contracted leukemia and tragically died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 58, in 1996.
Sadly, Marlowe’s genius as a writer has been nearly lost, as none of his novels have remained in print. But through the internet, it is easy to find second-hand copies of his work, and I urge you to do so.
I kept in touch with Marlowe for the next five years, eventually meeting him for an interview in 1984. The cliche is never meet your heroes, but I am glad I did, for Marlowe was more than any fan could have expected – kind in his attentions, generous in his support, and always funny.
In his advice to a teenage wannabe writer, he wrote:
“Remember books last longer than reviews and the most boring part is typing the damn thing afterwards and planning beforehand. Never think too hard about what you are going to write – just jump in. I’ve never known the end of my book, nor even the middle until after I am halfwat through. And ignore anyone who says you can’t make a living out of writing. You can if you don’t limit yourself to novels in England alone and don’t want a Rolls immediately. I have never known a writer over thirty who has got the stamina to be poor. Talent doesn’t make for success. Courage does first. But above all, if you want to survive, heed Nabokov’s remark: I write for myself – but I publish for money.”
Derek Marlowe 1938-1996