Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ray and Jimmy: The Raymond Chandler--James M. Fox Correspondence (1950-56), Part I

Back in 1979 a small but fascinating collection of Raymond Chandler correspondence with James M. Fox (on Fox, see my recent blog posts) was published by a small Santa Barbara, California press. The little book was edited by James Pepper--the same James Pepper, I presume, who is proprietor of James Pepper Rare Books in Santa Barbara.  The copy I had was inscribed by Pepper to Richard Harwell, who I presume was Richard Barksdale Harwell (1915-1988), the Georgia librarian, bibliographer, author, according Emory University, who has some of his papers (I find this especially interesting because I have Barksdale relations in my family background).

Raymond Chandler

The correspondence between Chandler and Fox commenced on December 20, 1950, when Fox wrote Chandler, having met him the previous month at a dinner party.  Fox was following up on a promise to send Chandler a copy of his new, non-series novel, The Wheel Is Fixed (his previously novel was the John and Suzy Marshall mystery The Gentle Hangman, reviewed rather tepidly by me here).

Though he signed his epistle "with kindest regards," Chandler's response was not very encouraging:

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 try writing a spy story.

It was interesting to see Chandler again attacking the work of Ross Macdonald.  I was familiar with his corrosive comments about Macdonald's first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target (1949) (as was, sadly, Macdonald, after some of Chandler's correspondence was first published in the 1960s), but I don't recall having before seen these dismissive comments about The Drowning Pool (1950).

I myself am not too crazy about his first two books, but think much more highly of his next pair, The Way Some People Die (1951) and The Ivory Grin (1952).  Did Chandler ever come to accept that Macdonald was a great creative artist within detective fiction?  If so, we don't seem to have a record of it, sadly.

James M. Fox
Fox's response is interesting too.  "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."

It sounds like Fox was perhaps not as personally inspired to write hard-boiled detective fiction as he ideally should have been, even though he was a great admirer of Chandler's crime fiction.

Certainly parts of The Gentle Hangman did feel synthetic to me, and this seems to have been the same case with Fox's novel Free Ride, according to John Norris.

Ross Macdonald
The subject of the pressure brought to bear by publishers on genre authors' writing is an interesting one, I think.  From Tom Nolan's biography of Ross Macdonald I know that Macdonald frequently was pushed in the 1950s to add more violent action to his books.  It wasn't for about a decade after the commencement of the Lew Archer series that he really began fully writing the type of crime fiction he wanted to write.

In that sense, Chandler was right to point out that the younger man's earlier work was imitative, though his negative judgment was far too sweeping.  Some of Macdonald's 1950s fiction is tremendously good.

Could Chandler in fact have felt threatened by this quality as he struggled to complete another novel after The Little Sister (1949)?

Anyway, apparently Fox did not hear back from Chandler after this initial exchange, but he wrote him again, two years later, in March 3, 1953.  "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, he wrote.  Yet finally he had done so; and he wanted to dedicate the 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" (the novel was Dark Crusade).

A gratified Chandler soon wrote Fox back, mentioning that he had just read Dorothy B. Hughes' spy story The Davidian Report and didn't really like it, though he was a great admirer of her work; and he looked forward to seeing Fox's effort.

Thus was launched a correspondence of three years between the two men.  Over time they went from "Mr. Chandler and Mr. Fox" to "Chandler and Fox" to, finally, "Ray and Jimmy." Expect to see more about this after Christmas.  Happy holidays!


  1. Have you read the Chandler/Gardner correspondence? Very interesting stuff.

  2. Fascinating Curt - I really will have to see what I have of Fox on the shelves! Have a great Christmas chum.

  3. Fox sounds like an interesting guy, even if I wasn't crazy about his one book I read.