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.”
More on Derek Marlowe, plus bonus clip after the jump…