Rayner, Richard 1955–
Rayner, Richard 1955–
The Elephant (novel), Turtle Bay Books (New York, NY), 1992.
The Blue Suit: A Memoir of a Crime, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Murder Book (crime novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
Los Angeles without a Map, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Cloud Sketcher (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
The Devil's Wind (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to newspapers and periodicals, including New York Times, New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, and Granta.
ADAPTATIONS: Los Angeles without a Map was made into a motion picture starring Johnny Depp, James LeGros, and Julie Delpy; The Cloud Sketcher is scheduled to be adapted to film.
SIDELIGHTS: In an interview with Penelope Rowlands for Publishers Weekly, author Richard Rayner made it very clear that all of his writing is autobiographical. "The story of my childhood is very much the story" as depicted in his 1995 memoir, The Blue Suit: A Memoir of a Crime. As described in that book, his car-salesman father really did sell one hundred thousand English pounds worth of cars, then absconded with the money rather than reimburse the manufacturer. Rayner's father faked his own death, vanished abroad, then reappeared when the author was a college undergraduate. "Obviously he was a mythic figure for me," Rayner said of his father, who died—for real this time—in 1991.
After graduating from Cambridge University in 1977, Rayner worked for Time Out magazine in London, "a sex and drugs and rock and roll sort of place," he recalled, where he eventually became an editor. "One was able to invent spurious reasons to do a story," he recalled. "I kept finding reasons to come to L.A." He eventually wrote about that city in his 1988 book, Los Angeles without a Map, in which, accompanied by his new Playboy bunny girlfriend, Barbara, he met a wide variety of eccentric Californians. Romance and Hollywood become one long reel of disillusionment. "I thought how few genuinely fat people I'd seen in California," he wrote. "Where did they go? Perhaps there was a state ordinance against obesity. Perhaps sleek, surf-Nazi police would arrive in the middle of the night, herd the fatties in to cattle trucks, and dump them in Oregon. Or Nevada." One of the Californians he meets, a James Dean memorabilia collector, owns a script of Rebel without a Cause bound in human skin. Jess Cagle commented in People Weekly: "One is never sure how much of this book is fiction and how much is based on fact, and Rayner, a British journalist, isn't saying. He does, however, draw a reader in by picking up on some telling details and characters, making L.A. sound like somewhere nobody would want to live or visit."
Although Rayner's first novel, The Elephant, received critical praise, the author remembers the work as being plagued by first-novel mistakes. "It was autobiographical and kind of undisciplined," he told a Publishers Weekly writer. Rayner's real-life father-son reconciliation is told through the character of Jack Hamer, a ladies' man who works as an undertaker in Bradford, England. He embezzles a sizable amount of money in empty coffins, fakes his own death, and sixteen years later returns home, much to the astonishment of his adult son, a journalist who is also a talented liar. Together again, the two compete against each other in seducing women, but by the end of the novel the son has broken free of his father and is ready to forge his own life. "Rayner manages to transform this self-conscious, protean narrator into an ordinary man who tells a moving truth," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.
Rayner's next book, The Blue Suit, recounts how the college-aged author began shoplifting first editions of his favorite books, then forging checks and, eventually, breaking into houses. Writing in Entertainment Weekly, reviewer Daneet Steffens commented that "Rayner's conversational, comic writing is reminiscent of a youthful Martin Amis, and you can't help but admire how this stone-hearted criminal carves out his own path of savage humor and fierce irony. Rayner's just a smart, funny bloke, telling you his life story over a pint of Guinness at the corner pub, and making you laugh your head off."
Rayner considers himself fortunate to have avoided jail (he was arrested only once, while shoplifting a book). "More clinical than apologetic in his flashbacks, Rayner fleshes out his horrors, adding a sometimes vicious mother to his psychohistory. He proceeded as an apprentice journalist and failed novelist in London; he consorted—even in crime—with a high-born woman married to a junkie," reported a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. "It was good fortune in life, not any moral epiphany, that eased him out of crime. Now in L.A. and a new relationship, he has liberated his family secrets and personal demons."
Despite his personal background as a thief, Rayner worked the police beat for a time, covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots for Granta magazine and later writing a New York Times Magazine cover story about the L.A. Police Department. Some of the experiences he had during this time entered into the writing of his crime novel Murder Book, in which the main character is Billy McGrath, an LAPD homicide detective with a philosophical bent. Although McGrath is the top homicide detective in the city, his marriage has collapsed and he is desperately short of money. After the mother of a major drug dealer is murdered, the dealer, Ricky Lee Richards, promises McGrath half a million dollars if he will bring him the murderer. A heretofore honest cop, McGrath agrees, but raises the price of the delivery to one million dollars. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented: "While Rayner's prose is occasionally too hardboiled, as if it's parodying pulp detective novels, these missteps are rare. Mostly the novel has just the right punch, and its portraits of the contemporary American city gone bad are oddly moving."
Based on the success of Murder Book, Rayner signed a contract for his next novel, The Cloud Sketcher. The project changed one night when Rayner's wife, Paivi, told him about the one-million-dollar business deal that went with future bestseller The Horse Whisperer. He decided then to aim for a blockbuster. Rayner threw himself into researching The Cloud Sketcher, reading numerous books, touring famous skyscrapers, and poring over other material as well as the history of his wife's native Finland.
Set in Finland around the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and later in 1920s New York, The Cloud Sketcher is equal parts history, thriller, and crime novel. The protagonist, Esko, is a Finnish man born during the Russian Civil War whose passion for architecture turns into a desire to build skyscrapers. The book was partly inspired by works of architecture, including Finnish architect Eero Saarinen's Art Nouveau-style train station in Helsinki. The author was also impressed by the Finnish architect himself, who, already world famous and in his fifties, headed off to the United States to start a new life. Rayner acknowledges debts to two favorite novels: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.
In Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist, Rayner chronicles the true story of Oscar Hartzell, a failed Illinois farmer who managed to convince thousands of credulous Midwesterners that they would be given a share of Sir Frances Drake's fortune if they donated to a legal fund set up on behalf of the famous explorer's American heirs. Of course, Hartzell claimed that even very small donations would yield enormous returns. At the height of the scam, he was receiving tens of thousands of dollars a day at the American Exchange office in London, where he claimed to be in negotiations with genealogical experts and government officials. He lived the high life in London for years, until Scotland Yard built enough of a case against him to have him deported back to Sioux City, South Dakota, to stand trial for fraud. Despite his speedy conviction, the majority of those he had fleeced remained convinced he was going to deliver their shares of Drake's fortune, and, amazingly, continued to send him money. A contributor to Publishers Weekly noted that Rayner's "account of Hartzell's life and times is brisk and breezy, a terrifically entertaining read, and the author's obvious fascination with his subject is infectious. But this is more than just a griping tale: Rayner also laces his narrative with savvy commentary—including insights into the psyches of swindler and victim alike—that helps explain why cons like Hartzell occupy such a place in American history."
Rayner returns to fiction with his 2005 novel, The Devil's Wind. The story is set in the noirish Las Vegas of the 1950s, when the city's tone was darker, the mob a more pronounced presence, and when the famous and well-connected could carouse with little possibility of repercussions. "Rayner skillfully mixes aspects of Vegas history" with his own plot twists, noted Bill Ott in Booklist. With a background that includes the city's first integrated casino, the unsolved murder of African American sax player Wardell Grey, and the nuclear tests conducted in the deserts around Las Vegas, Rayner tells the story of Maurice Valentine, an architect from Las Angeles. He is married to the daughter of a U.S. senator, whose ambitions are aimed at a run for the Nevada senate. When he meets the beautiful but mysterious Mallory Walker at a party, he begins an ill-advised affair with her. When she accompanies him on a trip to Las Vegas to meet Paul Mantilini, an influential mobster for whom Valentine designed a casino, the mysteries surrounding her deepen, and it becomes apparent that Mallory is not who she seems. When she is apparently murdered, Valentine becomes intent on learning her true identity and the nature of the game she was playing. Rayner's story makes use of the "unsettling realities beneath Las Vegas's glossy surfaces as symbols of a deeper and more sinister social corruption," observed Lawrence Rungren in the Library Journal. "Plot twists and betrayals, bomb blasts and unrequited love all add up to a classy neo-noir," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer, while Ott remarked that Rayner's novel has "plenty of bang and more than a little heart."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June, 1988, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 20; September 15, 1995, review of The Blue Suit: A Memoir of a Crime, p. 148; November 15, 2000, Brian Kenney, review of The Cloud Sketcher, p. 588; February 1, 2005, Bill Ott, review of The Devil's Wind, p. 947.
Books, July, 1992, review of The Elephant, p. 17.
Cosmopolitan, January, 1989, Louise Bernikow, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 22.
Entertainment Weekly, January 12, 1996, Daneet Steffens, review of The Blue Suit, p. 52; August 1, 1997, review of The Blue Suit, p. 67.
Guardian (London, England), July 27, 1995, Peter Lennon, article on Richard Rayner, p. S4.
Guardian Weekly (London, England), June 4, 1989, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 29.
Hungry Mind Review, winter, 1997, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 41.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1988, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 1490; December 15, 1991, review of The Elephant, p. 1554; August 1, 1995, review of The Blue Suit, p. 1089; September 1, 1997, review of Murder Book, p. 1335.
Library Journal, January, 1989, Timothy L. Zindel, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 103; February 15, 1992, Brian Kenney, review of The Elephant, p. 197; August, 1995, Jim Burns, review of The Blue Suit, p. 84; January 1, 2005, Lawrence Rungren, review of The Devil's Wind, p. 100.
Listener, June 16, 1988, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 32.
London Review of Books, June 27, 1991, review of The Elephant, p. 18; October 19, 1995, review of The Blue Suit, p. 39.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 12, 1995, review of The Blue Suit, p. 1; October 19, 1997, review of Murder Book, p. 12.
Nation, December 4, 1995, review of The Blue Suit, p. 84.
People Weekly, May 22, 1989, Jess Cagle, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 29; December 4, 1995, Louisa Ermelino, review of The Blue Suit, p. 30; November 3, 1997, Pam Lambert, review of Murder Book, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, October 21, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 49; December 15, 1989, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 62; January 6, 1992, review of The Elephant, p. 48; August 7, 1995, review of The Blue Suit, p. 449; September 1, 1997, review of Murder Book, p. 94; November 27, 2000, John F. Baker, profile of Richard Rayner; March 5, 2001, Penelope Rowlands, "Richard Rayner Climbing the Heights," interview with the author, p. 58; March 18, 2002, review of Drake's Fortune, p. 86; January 10, 2005, review of The Devil's Wind, p. 39.
Times Literary Supplement, July 29, 1988, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 827; May 24, 1991, David Montrose, review of The Elephant, p. 21; July 14, 1995, Phil Baker, review of The Blue Suit, p. 7.
Fantastic Fiction Web site, http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/ (May 8, 2006), biography of Richard Rayner.
January Magazine, http://januarymagazine.com/ (March28, 2002), Margaret Gunning, review of The Cloud Sketcher, p. C02.
Mukkula.org, http://www.mukkula.org/ (May 8, 2006), biography of Richard Rayner.
Mystery Reader.com, http://www.mysteryreader.com/ (March 28, 2002), Jeri Wright, review of The Cloud Sketcher, p. C02.