Back in 1979 a collection of Raymond Chandler’s correspondence with vastly lesser known Dutch-American crime writer James M. Fox (aka Johannes Knipscheer) was published by a small Santa Barbara, California press in a little tome of sixty-seven pages, comprised of thirty-four letters exchanged between the two men. The book was edited by James Pepper—the same James Pepper, I presume, who is proprietor of James Pepper Rare Books in Santa Barbara. (My copy of the book, which I bought on the used book market, in fact is inscribed and slightly annotated by Pepper.) Although I have seen little or no reference to the Chandler-Fox correspondence in works on Chandler, this correspondence opens a telling window on the fascinating if frustrating personality of the great hard-boiled author, a brilliant man of both broad insights and petty prejudices, who in his correspondence with Fox was simultaneously courteous and waspish, forthright and duplicitous. Ultimately the forgotten Fox made his greatest contribution to crime fiction when he successfully cajoled the elusive and cantankerous older author into corresponding with him.
Over the course of their correspondence, which began on December 20, 1950 and ended on January 7, 1956 but was mostly confined to the two years between January 1954 and January 1956, Chandler and Fox would go from calling each other “Mr. Chandler and Mr. Fox” to “Chandler and Fox” to, finally, “Ray and Jimmy.” Fox initiated the epistolary relationship, having met Chandler the previous month at a dinner party. Very much taking on the ingratiating tone of a novitiate and supplicant, the younger author with his first letter was following up on his promise to send Chandler a copy of his new, non-series crime novel, The Wheel Is Fixed.
Although he signed his reply to Fox, dated January 4, 1952, “with kindest regards,” Chandler’s response, in which he took time out to attack the writing of young hard-boiled up-and-comer Ross Macdonald, was distinctly discouraging to earnest young sappers of the hard-boiled vein of lead:
One thing puzzles me a little: here you are, Dutchman by birth and a good deal of an internationalist by education; yet you seem to have committed yourself to one of the most parochial and overworked fields of writing there is—a style so desperately overdone that in some of its recent manifestations (for instance, The Drowning Pool, by John Ross Macdonald) it has become a burlesque. There are pages in this book which are pure parody. The man has ability. He could be a good writer. Yet everything in his book is borrowed, and everything in it is spoiled by exaggeration.
Chandler urged Fox to drop the hard-boiled gig and try writing something far less overworked: a spy story. Indeed, Chandler asserted that the spy story was “a field of melodrama which hasn’t been scratched.” (Casino Royale, the landmark debut James Bond spy novel by British author Ian Fleming, would not see the light of day in the United States until 1954, when the two correspondents would have something to say about it.)
Certainly disparaging the writing of Ross Macdonald was nothing new for Chandler. A year earlier, in a letter to mystery critic James Sandoe, Chandler had dismissed Macdonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target (1949), as the product of a pretentious “literary eunuch,” a cutting characterization which greatly hurt Macdonald when Chandler’s letter was published in the Sixties. But until I saw his correspondence with Fox, I had not realized that Chandler was still grousing about his younger rival the next year, when The Drowning Pool, the second Lew Archer novel, was published. I myself am not too crazy about Macdonald’s first two Lew Archer mysteries, but I think much more highly of his next pair, The Way Some People Die (1951) and The Ivory Grin (1952). Did Chandler ever come, before his death on March 26, 1959, three days before Macdonald’s landmark The Galton Case (1959) was raved in the New York Times Book Review, to accept and admit that Macdonald was a genuinely great, or even merely good, creative artist in his own right within the genre detective fiction? Sadly, it would seem not.
Responding to Chandler’s advice in his reply, Fox attempted to defend his own course of action in writing tough detective fiction, while not offending the Great Man:
I was practically bulldozed by publishers and agents into producing book-length detective stories. Since then I’ve turned out six of them, and I’m working on the seventh. They actually make a living for me….I know this is an overworked and parochial domain, and I can see your point about Macdonald’s book and others….For myself, I try to keep from overdoing it. But the attempt has never served to please my publishers.
Apparently Fox did not hear back from Chandler after this initial exchange, but he plucked up courage to write him again two years later, on March 3, 1953, with what he considered big news. “It has taken me almost two years to bully my publishers into allowing me to act upon [Chandler’s suggestion that he write a spy novel],” Fox wrote. Yet finally he had done so; and he wanted to dedicate the forthcoming book to Chandler, “for the many lessons your books have taught me, even though I may have proved myself a student with a mere C-average, so far.” Fox explained that the basic format of the novel, which he planned to title Dark Crusade, “is not unlike that of [Somerset Maugham’s landmark spy book] Ashenden, although I can hardly hope even to approximate Maugham’s craftsmanship and general excellence.”
Chandler courteously replied on March 13 that “I should be only too flattered at the idea of having one of your books dedicated to me,” adding discouragingly, however, that since their last correspondence “I have read quite a few spy stories (I mean recent ones, written since the war) but I can’t say that I have read anything that impressed me much.” Although he admired crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes “very much,” for example, he had not been impressed with her recent espionage novel, The Davidian Report. After having encouraged Fox to write a spy novel, Chandler went on, maddeningly, to suggest that perhaps no good spy novels really could be written, or police novels for that matter, in case Fox was thinking of trying one of those:
It may be that there is something self-defeating in the spy story itself and that intelligence or counter-intelligence work in fiction is ether damned dull stuff or so oversimplified that it becomes silly. The same thing could probably be said about police work, and perhaps this is why so few mysteries of any quality (when I say so few, I can’t offhand think of any) are written around actual police detectives, or to be more accurate I should say police detectives who might conceivably actually be policemen.
Seemingly undaunted (and perhaps with the success of Hillary Waugh’s landmark 1952 police procedural Last Seen Wearing in mind), Fox in his March 18 response to Chandler bravely confided that he was about to publish a new roman policier novel, Code Three, the first in a new series, with a police sergeant protagonist, although in what was becoming a common device on his part he preemptively disparaged his latest effort to the older gray eminence: “The publisher likes it, which means very little, of course. It will probably sell all right because of the sex plus violence element in it, and because it contains at least a flavor of actual police work, but the word ‘quality’ is one I hardly expect to hear mentioned in connection with it.” (In the event New York Times Book Review mystery critic Anthony Boucher found the material in the novel over-familiar, but declared that “it reads at such a terrific clip, with such economy and vividness, that your reservations come only after you’ve finished it.”)
After a lapse of nearly ten months, Fox on January 8, 1954 sent Chandler a copy of his newly published spy novel, Dark Crusade, and three weeks later a gratified Chandler replied with a long letter sent by special delivery, surprisingly bestowing considerable praise on the book, although not without qualification:
I tried to call you on the phone to offer my unimportant congratulations on Dark Crusade, but either you have none or you are a bastard like me and keep the number unpublished.I liked the book so much that I wish I had three more just like it to look forward to.From the point of view of popular success I think it has faults, but they are not the sort of faults that matter at all to me, since the scene, the incident, the causal by-play and the general feeling of (to use an overdriven word) authenticity—all these are much more to point than a tidy story line. You speak of haste…the Spanish sequence with a few slight alterations and a cornier ending would have made a Cosmo or Colliers 20,000 word novelette and paid you more money than you are likely to get out of the book….
I like the cool literate way in which you write. I think some of your stuff will go over the heads of the lending library creeps, but that can’t be helped….
Occasioned by his reading of Dark Crusade, Chandler went on to express his views of the Cold War, as well as, incidentally, the American Civil War, which Chandler, like many white southerners of the day (which of course he was not), referred to as the War Between the States. Chandler denounced the United States for not sufficiently resisting aggression from the Soviet Union and quixotically avowed support for the Lost Cause of the Southern Confederacy:
I don’t suppose the people of this country will ever let themselves realise how much harm to themselves and their future their foreign policy has done. The principle of self-determination seems to work everywhere in other people’s colonies, unless of course it is a question of placating some swine like Stalin, when you toss whole nations into the incinerator without a qualm. The only domestic problem of self-determination we have faced was in the War Between the States (in which I should most certainly have fought on the losing side). It was also almost the first demonstration of high-powered propaganda in convincing the world that the war was about slavery, which it was not. The nation, said Lincoln, cannot exist half slave and half free, but apparently we think the world can. So much for that.
More pertinently to mystery fans, Chandler also noted that his new Philip Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye, had enjoyed great success in the United Kingdom, selling close to thirty thousand copies. “I only wish American sales could compare,” he added. “Adjusted for population that would mean a real sale here.” Chandler promised he would send Fox a copy of the book, which the next year would win the Edgar for best mystery novel.
In his reply on January 28, Fox, per his wont, expressed dissatisfaction with Dark Crusade, explaining that in writing it he had to draw on pre-1939 memories of Europe. Also, the publisher had allowed him only six months to complete the book. “This sort of writing really shouldn’t even be attempted without at least 50,000 words in background notes, made on location within the past year or so,” he ruefully reflected. He admitted to Chandler that:
The question of compromise between cool fact and emotion is one that has always bothered me, badly. I realize full well that the average reader craves emotional experience, yet it is very difficult for me to supply anything of the sort. My instinctive tendency is to supply only “facts,” whether fictitious or not; to place them in studied relationship to each other, preferably ironical relationship; and to demand that the reader understand thoroughly, grasp the meaning, perform the often necessary double take and work up his own emotional reaction. This procedure is against the rules, I know, and sells no books.
Fox noted that he was planning a trip to Europe and he hoped to write another espionage novel set there. However, he feared that financial considerations would force him “to stick to routine bread and butter stuff for quite a while. Right now I’m on one of those three-and-four-letter word, six-word sentence, cops and gangsters stories for which the reprint publishers are yammering.” In the hope of facilitating his book sales Fox was now advising publishers in publicity material “not to emphasize my Dutch origins.” He wryly explained that the “average American reader tends to associate the adjective Dutch only with cheese, wooden shoes and little boys plugging holes in dykes with their thumbs.”
Chandler, who now was calling his correspondent simply “Fox” (rather than “Mr. Fox”) in his next letter, written on February 5, 1954, urged the younger man (Chandler was sixty-five and Fox forty-five): “Cut out the ‘mister’ please.” Later in the year the two would advance, in term of their epistolary intimacy, to calling each other “Ray” and “Jimmy.”
Chandler had now read Fox’s police novel Code Three–a departure for the younger author, who was best known for his medium-boiled Johnny and Suzy Marshall mystery series—and he informed Fox that “as a piece of story construction” he found it “much better than Dark Crusade.” However, he pronounced that “it is not in the same class of writing….”
Apropos to this declaration concerning the merits of story construction and pure writing, Chandler reiterates views from his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” when discussing the British publisher Hamish Hamilton. “I think he has flopped on the American books he has published more often than not,” Chandler averred of Hamish Hamilton, explaining:
He has always published John Dickson Carr whom I find as unreadable as Mickey Spillane. although for different readers. [Carr and Chandler feuded around four years earlier when Carr, having taken umbrage at Chandler’s withering attack on classic English mystery in his essay, had panned Chandler’s Simple Art of Murder collection in a notice in the New York Times Book Reivew]. I can’t read Agatha Christie either….Most mysteries—I’d say 90%—are written by people who can’t write. I take it they write mysteries because there are enough people in the world who will read almost anything in this field….There’s always a market for a clever hack and I must say that the nicest writers I have known personally are the hacks. The others are egotists and boring.
Fox’s next letter to Chandler, composed on February 9, was full of praise for Chandler’s new Philip Marlowe mystery, The Long Goodbye, which is often deemed Chandler’s best novel:
The Long Goodbye is, as you’re probably quite well aware yourself, the best book you have written….Of course the Philip Marlowe novels have always been in a class by themselves. The most elementary proof of this, I think, lies in the fact that they can all be read again and again with undiminishing returns to the reader….The Marlowe novels should probably never have been classified as “mysteries” at all. They are novels of character, and novels of low manners, written “down” somewhat, I imagine, so as not to offend the so-called sensibilities of a certain chosen market. The mystery part of the plots is always ingenious, and never really important. In The Long Goodbye…the outcome is almost transparent from Chapter 13 on. But the fortunate reader is treated to such a banquet of style, characterization, acerbic wit and plain good literature, not to mention frequent dishes of almost painfully keen philosophy, that he leaves the table with a feeling of exhilaration.
I read The Long Goodbye in one day, and wound up rather depressed, because the book made it so terribly clear how wide the gap really is between your accomplishment and mine. It will have the same effect on all of your colleagues who are not hopeless egotists….
On the lighter side, I must report immense relief at Marlowe finally being allowed to sleep with one of his women….
….Has it seriously occurred to you to write your autobiography?…[If not] I’d like a further try at persuading you to allow me to attempt a straight biography….
On the writing of Code Three, Fox with characteristic diffidence explained that he had “been trying for years to talk Little, Brown into letting me shift away from my medium-boiled series characters, who don’t fit the present audience trend towards sex and violence….They finally agreed, rather late in the day, to an experiment with a hardboiled police story. I had to do it in six weeks or so to meet their schedule….Now they want more of them quick, because they made a good reprint deal on it, and it happens I don’t feel much like obliging….
It was nice of you to read it. The only defense I can make for it is the obvious one [presumably money], apart from whatever slight flavor of real cop talk I managed to get in….
In his February 16 response to Fox, Chandler, after a long rant against the IRS, whom he declared he intended to “cheat” out of as much tax as he could “without getting sent up,” threw a bucket of cold water on Fox’s life story proposal, declaring: “I don’t know why I should write an autobiography….If I did it, it would be full of lies. I don’t think anyone else should do it, though, and I shouldn’t care for the idea. What your arguments are I have no idea, but they will almost certainly not convince me.”
Concerning Fox’s statement that The Long Goodbye had a transparent solution to its mystery, Chandler reiterated his view from “The Simple Art of Murder” that “no ‘honest’ mystery plot will fool the aficionado….I never bother about who bumped off Sir Montague Gore-Cavendish in the gun room with the doors and windows all locked. Very often just for the fun of it I look at the end and then amuse myself with watching the author try to smudge his fingerprints.”
In a February 24 letter, Chandler invited Fox and his wife to visit him and his wife in La Jolla, though he warned, “My wife is not in the best of health….” Fox accepted and reported in March that he and his wife had “had a grand time” with the Chandlers. Chandler in his March 27 reply mostly discussed his and his wife’s problem with finding good cooks, assessing the relative merits of whites versus “coloreds”: “These [cooks I have just discussed] have all been white. I have heard a lot about wonderful colored cooks. I haven’t met one around here. Most people here have them, and I know one woman, the wife of a judge, who pays a colored cook $100 a month for two days a week.”
From home economics back to crime writing, Chandler reported on April 19, with his usual chariness toward a successful new author: “I have read a book called Casino Royale which was reviewed in Time along with my book and I liked it but thought it overrated. Get it and take a look because it’s along the lines of yours. [Dark Crusade] Seemed to me to contain 4 or 5 errors. (If you can’t get it, I’ll send you my copy to read. Don’t buy it.)”
Fox agreed with Chandler’s assessment of Ian Fleming’s landmark James Bond novel, the first in the monumentally lucrative and critically acclaimed series:
I’ve just read Casino Royale, which has two very interesting scenes: the baccarat game and the torture scene. Most of the rest I sort of raised an eyebrow at. There were several outright impossibilities, probably injected because the author, knowing better, figured he had to cater to the reader’s demand for sensational incidents or something. He’s got literary talent, I should think, but the book’s architecture makes no sense to me, and the girl is surely a very unsatisfactory and unbelievable character?
In Chandler’s response of May 19, he wrote passingly, “I quite agree with you about Casino Royale.” However, he seemed more preoccupied with complaining about other writers as well as his continued troubles with domestic cookery. Chandler briefly excoriated admired crime writer William Campbell Gault, who evidently had a book review column in a Santa Barbara newspaper, as a “creep” who had “started sending me clips from his column in some local meat wrapper”; but he spent far more space flaying an author named Jacquin Sanders, whose publishers had offended Chandler by sending him a copy of Sanders’ first novel, Freak Show (1954), a seamy tale of carnival life, that one reviewer dubbed “[t]he most sordidly offbeat novel of the year—and of a good many years.”
“Where the hell does a character get a name like that,” Chandler sneered of the author, sounding for all the world like a mid-century Donald Trump. In fact Jacquin Sanders was a son of Moses Nathan Sanders, a wealthy Springfield, Ohio clothing merchant of Russian Jewish nativity (who had Anglicized his surname from Sandowitz), and Ethel Holzberg. The younger Sanders was a journalist who in his early twenties had served as an army rifleman in World War Two, in the event witnessing the horrific sinking of the troopship Leopoldville in the English Channel with much loss of life on Christmas Eve 1944 (about which he later published a book). Of Sanders’ novel a disgusted Chandler priggishly wrote Fox, “Your publishers for no reason that I can understand sent me a book called Freak Show by Jacquin Sanders….I haven’t read it and don’t want to. They didn’t ask me for quotes, which was nice of them, because I never do that for anyone and I’m glad I don’t since I found that some of these professional enthusiasts get paid for it. The book seems to have written by a sort of Road Show James Cain except that, to tell the truth and I have used this line before, I’m sorry, it has always struck me that Cain is kind of a roadshow James Cain himself.” Despite his derision, Chandler kept the book, which was inscribed by Sanders to Chandler, in his library, though under his ownership stamp he snidely wrote From Little, Brown & Co.—God knows why! (Today Peter Harrington Books offers it for purchase to book collectors for 2250 pounds.)
For good measure Chandler, who in this letter was really on a roll (sourdough?), lambasted The Content Assignment (1954), the first espionage novel by well-regarded author Holly Roth: “I hope you avoided a piece of drivel called The Content Assignment. I didn’t. It started out rather well, but don’t they all?” This observation provoked Fox in his reply to register what for him was a singular dissent: “Simon & Schuster sent me a copy of The Content Assignment last January, and I thought rather well of it on the whole.”
Fox had nothing to say about Chandler’s continual griping about the quality of the cooks employed by himself and his much older, ailing wife, Cissie, at their La Jolla, California home. Complaining that their Caucasian cook was “in the hospital after a severe operation (probably bungled)” and that her health prospects were dim, he witheringly added: “We now have a dark lady who means awfully well but ain’t exactly a high I.Q. I don’t know how long she will last. I don’t know how long any of us will last. I am not optimistic. I’m caught talking to myself quite a lot lately. They say that is not too bad unless you answer back. I not only answer back, I argue and get mad.”
Cissie died later that year, with a catastrophic effect on Chandler, who himself passed away on March 26, 1959. He and Fox would exchange ten more letters in 1955 and the very beginning of 1956, but on the whole they are of lesser interest compared to their earlier correspondence.
The last letter exchanged between the two men was sent by Chandler on January 7, 1956 from London, where he was visiting after the death of his wife and his own failed suicide attempt. The previous year Fox, on learning that Chandler was in England, had boldly asked the elder man to talk to British producers about making a film of his novel Dark Crusade—and even to consider writing the script himself! Chandler agreed to talk up Fox’s spy novel, adding: “I thought Dark Crusade a good book and deserving of much better treatment.” Fox was positively fulsome in his gratitude, writing Chandler: “My wife and I were just beginning to think that as a writer I’d make a good used-car salesman when your letter arrived about Dark Crusade. They don’t build better friends than that. If anyone can swing this—and if anyone can distil a good script out of this—you’re it. Gratitude is already flowing your way in torrents. We couldn’t conceive of better news just now.”
Sadly, Fox’s effusion seems simply to have provoked the mercurial Chandler—who, incidentally, would shortly strike up a warm, mutually admiring friendship with Ian Fleming and publicly praise his novels in the pages of the Sunday Times—to counter with balloon bursting candor: “Please don’t build too many hopes on Dark Crusade….A producer who would buy Dark Crusade (I’m only repeating what has been suggested to me) would be a second rate producer and would probably want to pay me off in salted nuts for doing the script. That Hettie Hilton (one of Chandler’s agents) would never allow….She is asking $10,000 for me, a very high figure over here, I am told, for England. No one but one of the three or four top men would pay it, and I don’t think they would now make a spy story. So, to quote Dame Edith Sitwell’s famous ‘brush-off’ line: “Well, there you are, my dear.”
Brush-off indeed! Fox evidently never wrote Chandler again, nor Chandler Fox. In a postscript to the slim volume of their correspondence that was published in 1978, Fox, who was then seventy years old, retrospectively expressed his regret over Chandler’s self-destructive demise and that “I was unable—or perhaps incompetent—to do more for him during the years after Cissie’s departure….There can be no doubt that he deserved better from all of us.” Fox, who died in 1989, his books out-of-print and largely forgotten, compared his personal relationship with Chandler, who had died three decades earlier but whose reputation as an writer had grown with each passing decade, to that of “a generous yet somewhat caustic and sometimes wayward father and a worshipful but anxious son.” How disappointed the worshipful “son” Fox would have been had he seen the letter that his generous “father” had written to another of his agents, Edgar Carter, on June 22, 1956. In it Chandler with casual cruelty observed that Fox, “in spite of being a nice guy is almost a classic bore….I turned him down flat [when he proposed writing my biography]…because he isn’t a good enough writer….”
Authors and Books Raymond Chandler Incidentally Disparages, to Some Degree or Another, in This Article
Ross Macdonald (The Drowning Pool)
Dorothy B. Hughes (The Davidian Report)
Julian Symons (The Broken Penny)
Eric Maschwitz (Little Red Monkey)
John Dickson Carr
Ian Fleming (Casino Royale)
William Campbell Gault
Jacquin Sanders (Freak Show)
James M. Cain
Holly Roth (The Content Assignment)
And, last and perhaps least: James M. Fox