A Dandy in Aspic - A Letter from Derek Marlowe

I originally wrote this elsewhere, but want to share it, in remembrance of a great writer, Derek Marlowe, who died today in 1996.

Marlowe was the author of nine novels, ranging form the Cold War spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic, the historical A Single Summer With L.B., about Byron, Shelley and the creation of monsters and the partially autobiographical The Rich Boy from Chicago. Marlowe started as a playwright, before moving to prose.

When I interviewed him in 1984, Marlowe told me the story of how his career really started with a bet. A bet between three young writers, who lived together in a flat in London. Nothing unusual there, except these young writers were Tom Stoppard, Piers Paul Read, and Derek Marlowe. One day, as they watched Mick Jagger on Top of the Pops, the three wagered a bet on who would make a million first.  It was decided Stoppard would, but Marlowe pipped him to it, with his first novel, A Dandy in Aspic.

I started reading Marlowe in my early teens and he focussed my thoughts about writing. This then is the story of a fan letter I wrote Marlowe and his reply.

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 three or four fan letters reveal about me, both good and bad.  That said, the replies always pleased - a signed photograph, a message from a secretary, a written response.  The reply that meant so much to me 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 MacLean, and the dog-eared ghost stories, into a world of shifting ambiguity, complex relationships, through his dark, witty stories told in his remarkable style.

Marlowe’s response to my Biro scribbled missive was a typed, two-page letter, in lower case and capitals.  It is a letter I cherish, for it gave me a sense of what can be made of a life. 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 how he had started his career 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 A Dandy in Aspic (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.”

Marlowe’s first novel A Dandy in Aspic, published in 1966, was the story of a double-agent, Eberlin, sent on a mission to assassinate his alter ego.  Dandy, as the jacket blurb said:

After a beautifully arresting plunge-in, a spy is assigned - savage irony! - to hunt himself down. And now, hot on his own trail…

Dandy fitted into the sixties’ pre-occupation with suave secret agents and was made into a so-so film starring Laurence Harvey, Mia Farrow, Tom Courtney and Peter Cook, of which Marlowe 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 the portrait while Leonardo is out of the room.”

It was expected Marlowe would continue with the spy genre, competing with the success of Ian Fleming, John le Carre and Len Deighton, but Marlowe had his own ideas and followed up his debut with Memoirs of a Venus Lackey, the disturbing tale of a roue, who examined his sinful life from Hell.

In 1969, came an historical novel A Single Summer with L.B., which focussed on the fateful gathering in 1816, when Mary and Percy Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, a meeting 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, it tried too hard to capture the sense romantic disillusion contained in the book and was too ponderous, every action weighted with the same sense of importance. The location was also shifted from Britain to a snowy Toronto, where the “space age” architecture gave an imposing sense of alienation. Yet, there was still something of Marlowe in the film - the romantic disillusion.

“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.  When I read this book, I thought it the closest to Marlowe’s personality. Let’s take the central character Dowson, named after the poet and writer Ernest Christopher Dowson, a member of the Decadent Movement of writers, and friend of Frank Harris and Oscar Wilde, who is best remembered for the lines:

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses:

Out of a misty dream

Our path emerges for a while, then closes

Within a dream, in some way.”

The poet captured Marlowe’s romantic sense of himself. At times, Marlowe seemed like a man who belonged to a different century. He was a Romantic, or at least played on that image, and to an extent, a dandy - one of his heroes was Beau Brummell, whose biography he penned for the Dictionary of National Biography.

In the book, the character of Dowson shared Marlowe’s mix of parentage - a Greek Mother, a Cockney father - an outsider from birth, who longs to be accepted with higher social class. Within this novel, there is the kernel to the Marlowe the man. It is also a book that played with the form of one of his favorite novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, something Marlowe returned to with his last book, The Rich Boy From Chicago.

Another of Marlowe’s literary heroes was Raymond Chandler, and it was Chandler who inspired his 1974 homage Somebody’s Sister, about a washed up PI, Walter Brackett. Marlowe later told me he wrote Somebody’s Sister as he could never find any decent thrillers to read on long haul flights.  Then, in 1976, the haunting Nightshade about a mismatched 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 his letter, Marlowe 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.”

If Marlowe had been a character from fiction, it would have been Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby., it was Marlowe’s favourite book, and Fitzgerald’s influence can be seen in Rich Boy and Do You Remember England?, which were, unsurprisingly, Marlowe’s own personal favorites.  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 fifty-eight, in 1996.

If it wasn’t for the internet, Marlowe’s genius as a writer may have been lost, as none of his novels are currently in print. Thankfully, a browse around Amazon and Abe Books will find you copies, and I do urge you to go find and read.

I kept in touch with Marlowe on and off over 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 he 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 halfway 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

Via Planet Paul


Posted by Paul Gallagher
12:06 pm



comments powered by Disqus