Rayner, Richard 1955-
RAYNER, Richard 1955-
PERSONAL: Born 1955, in Bradford, England; married; wife's name Paivi; children: Harry, Charlie. Education: Graduated from Cambridge University, 1977.
ADDRESSES: Home—Venice, CA. Agent—Jeff Posternak, The Wylie Agency Inc., 250 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10107.
The Elephant, Turtle Bay Books (New York, NY), 1992.
The Blue Suit: A Memoir of a Crime, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Murder Book, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
Los Angeles without a Map, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Cloud Sketcher, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous Story of the World'sGreatest Confidence Artist, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel tentatively titled The Devil's Wind, set in 1950s California, about the House Un-American Activities Committee, be-bop, and European émigrés.
SIDELIGHTS: Richard Rayner, in an interview with Penelope Rowlands for Publishers Weekly, made it very clear that all of his writing is autobiographical. "The story of my childhood is very much the story" in his 1995 memoir The Blue Suit: A Memoir of a Crime. As described in that book, his car-salesman father really did sell £100,000 worth of cars, then absconded with the money rather than reimbursing the manufacturer. Rayner's father faked his own death, vanishing abroad for a decade, only to reappear when the author was an undergraduate. "Obviously he was a mythic figure for me," Rayner says 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 said, where he eventually became an editor. "One was able to invent spurious reasons to do a story," he recalls. "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 meets 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 writes. "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 Cagel 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 Publishers Weekly. 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. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted, "Rayner manages to transform this self-conscious, protean narrator into an ordinary man who tells a moving truth."
Rayner's next book, The Blue Suit: A Memoir of a Crime, was written as memoir and recounts how the college-aged author began shoplifting first editions of his favorite books, then forging checks and, eventually, breaking into houses. Donna Steffens commented in Entertainment Weekly, "Rayner's conversational, comic writing is reminiscent of a youthful Martin Amis, and you can't help but admire how this stonehearted 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," wrote 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 L.A. riots for Granta magazine and later writing a New York Times Magazine cover story about the Los Angeles 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, and started writing. The project changed one night when Rayner's wife Paivi told him about the business deal that went with future bestseller The Horse Whisperer. She came back one night and said "there's 200 pages of this novel and they're getting $1 million for it." He decided to "write big" and 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 Russian Revolution, and later in 1920s New York, The Cloud Sketcher is equal parts history of an era, 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. "I'd always been struck by that building," Rayner says. He was also impressed by the Finnish architect himself, who, already world famous and in his 50s, 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, which he loves for its "gorgeous romanticism."
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 to stand trial for fraud. Despite his speedy conviction, the majority of those he'd 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 gripping 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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June, 1988, review of Los Angeles without aMap, 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.
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, July 27, 1995, Peter Lennon, article on Richard Raynor, p. S4.
Guardian Weekly, June 4, 1989, review of Los Angeles without a Map, p. 29.
Hungry Minds Review, Winter, 1997, review of LosAngeles without a Map, p. 41.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1988, review of LosAngeles 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.
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; November 27, 2000, John F. Baker, article on Richard Rayner.
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.
January Magazine,http://januarymagazine.com/ (March 28, 2002), Margaret Gunning, review of The Cloud Sketcher, p. C02.
Mystery Reader.com,http://www.mysteryreader.com/ (March 28, 2002), Jeri Wright, review of The Cloud Sketcher, p. C02.*