Upon hearing that iconic crime novelist Raymond Chandler was not a fan of science fiction, you’d expect a Chandler-loving sci-fi fan to think, “ah well” or “oh man” or maybe even “fuck that guy.” But instead of being pouty or petty, writer Adam Christopher took it as more of a challenge. Thus we have Made To Kill (hardcover, digital), the first in a trilogy of sci-fi crime novels he’s describing as “Chandler-esque.”
Let’s start at the beginning: What is Made To Kill about?
Made To Kill is about Raymond Electromatic, the last robot in the world, who now works as a hitman in 1960s Hollywood using a private detective agency as a front. The story opens when a mysterious woman walks right in, wanting to take out a contract on the life of one of the biggest movie stars in town, offering a big bag of gold bars as payment. Ray and his supercomputer boss, Ada, are suspicious, but money is money, and they accept the job…only for Ray to stumble into the dark underbelly of Hollywood, where a secret organization is quietly bringing the final phase of their diabolical master plan to fruition.
It’s a hardboiled science fiction mystery, written in the style of Raymond Chandler, and is the first book in The L.A. Trilogy. There’s also a little prequel novelette called Brisk Money up on tor.com, which is essentially Ray’s origin story, showing how he went from robot P.I. to robot assassin. But readers can jump straight into Made To Kill, no problem. Brisk Money is just a nice extra. Enjoy one, chances are you’ll enjoy the other!
Where did the idea for Made To Kill come from? I understand the idea to write a sci-fi spy novel came from something Raymond Chandler said.
I have another trilogy with Tor, a space opera series set a thousand years in the future, where humanity is fighting an endless war with a gestalt machine intelligence. Before the first book, The Burning Dark, came out, I did a new author questionnaire for Tor; just a standard form thing, with dozens of questions on it. My job was to pick about ten I liked the look of, and the answers would go up on Tor.com.
One particular question caught my eye immediately: “If you could read one undiscovered novel from any writer, living or dead, what would it be?” I knew the answer instantly: Raymond Chandler’s long-lost, and quite non-existent, science fiction novel. I’m a huge Chandler fan, and right from when I first started reading him I thought it was a shame he never wrote sc-fi. What would “Raymond Chandler with robots” be like?
As it happens, Chandler hated science fiction. He wrote to his agent in 1953, complaining about the genre, saying “They pay brisk money for this crap?” He wrote a little pastiche right there in the letter — just 153 words — and it’s just nonsense…but it’s Raymond Chandler nonsense. In a way, it’s brilliant. Very silly, but there’s something in it. Chandler couldn’t help himself.
When I sent the questionnaire back in, my editor at Tor said I should totally write that Raymond Chandler science fiction story. He was probably joking, but I called his bluff and wrote the novellete, taking the title, Brisk Money, from Chandler’s original letter. My editor loved it, and I knew that it couldn’t end there. There was a whole novel of material. Maybe even a whole series. And my editor agreed. We talked, I worked up some ideas…and I had a new deal for a new trilogy.
So then where did the idea for the novel’s plot come from?
I wanted to do something that would, possibly, if you squint a bit and don’t think too hard, be something Chandler himself might have written. Might.
I set it in the distant, glittering future of 1965, and put together a story about movie world intrigue, the Hollywood jet set, and a threat to the nation. Being the middle of the Cold War, the nature of the threat came to mind pretty easily, and the rest fell into place.
It’s retro sci-fi, but not in a pulpy, simplistic way. The book might be fun, but the threat Ray unearths is pretty real, and while the central concept is pretty wild, it’s also grounded in the real fears of mid-’60s America. It’s absolutely a period piece, but one with some very fantastical concepts.
Made To Kill is, of course, not the only time someone’s mixed noir and sci-fi. There’s Blade Runner, of course, as well as Adam Sternbergh’s novels Shovel Ready and Near Enemy. How familiar are you with them and other works of noir sci-fi, and how, if at all, did they influence what you did in Made To Kill?
I love Adam Sternbergh’s books! Shovel Ready is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.
Noir and sci-fi is potent combo. I used it myself in my first novel, Empire State. I love crime, mystery, and detective fiction, and I also love mixing genres.
Certainly that rich history was in the back of my mind when writing Made To Kill, but I approached it as more as a straight, hardboiled crime/mystery. It just happened that the main character was a robot, and driving force behind the story was something science fictional. But I think it’s a great way to meld things together. You can read it as a science fiction novel, but you can also read it as a mystery.
Since Made To Kill is kind of cross between a ’50s sci-fi movie and a ’50s hard boiled detective novel, what ’50s sci-fi movie robots did you model Ray after?
This is a really interesting, and surprisingly difficult, question. There are various descriptions of Ray in the book, but not a lot of detail. He’s big, wide, heavy, has an exterior which is mostly bronzed steel plate. He’s humanoid, he has eyes and a nose and a mouth, but he’s most definitely a machine. There’s no mistaking what he is.
I took this approach deliberately, because it seemed more fun to leave it up to the reader’s imagination. Then Will Staehle, who did the amazing cover, somehow managed to piece the fragments of description together and came up with Ray’s face. I was really surprised when I saw it, but I also knew it was exactly correct.
I see Ray as though he were a 1950s robot, but designed in the present day, something like in Futurama. If a detective in fedora and trench coat turned up in that show, what would it look like?
What about the way Made To Kill is written. Did you try to make it Chandler-esque or did you cast a broader net?
Made To Kill is absolutely Chandler-esque — well, as close as a wannabe like me can get, anyway — because this is the science fiction novel he never wrote. I absolutely adore Chandler’s writing. Even sixty, seventy years later it’s still a surprise and a delight to read. Nobody can truly emulate him, but I think you can come to understand his style, the rhythm inherent in his work, and use that.
And I must admit, it was the most fun I’ve had writing. Once you get into that particular mode, the words just flow. There’s a freedom in the style, too. You can push yourself, really stretch the boundary between the sublime and the ridiculous, and even then you might not have pushed far enough.
Raymond Chandler was a genius. I’m just a pretender having a lot of fun.
Made To Kill is set in Hollywood. Why there as opposed to New York City or Chicago or somewhere else?
The setting came from the concept. All of the Philip Marlowe books are set mostly in and around Los Angeles, so that there was no question that’s where I had to place the trilogy. Having said that, Chandler himself lived in La Jolla for a time, so in the third book I’m sending Ray down there for a little visit.
If I get a chance to do more books, I’ve got plans to send my killer robot a little further afield….
Is your depiction of Los Angeles based on reality or did you model it after some movies, TV shows, and books?
It’s a mix; a romantic, slightly foggy notion of Hollywood at its late peak, and some real-world research. Like New York or London or Tokyo, most people will have some idea of what they think L.A. and Hollywood should be like, even if they haven’t been there. As a writer of fiction, my job is to lay enough of a solid foundation of the real city for readers to fill in the blanks in their own minds.
Los Angeles is an incredible city with a fascinating history, and, thanks to the fascination people have had with the movie business, a lot of that history has been documented visually. Amazingly, there are even hours of home movies shot around the streets of Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s online. There’s so much reference material available that I was able to stick to things like news footage, documentary footage, and home movies, rather than movies or TV shows.
There’s also a lot of Chandler’s L.A. in the book. He used real locations, disguising them most of the time, so I was able to use parts of his fictionalized city too. Although the book is set several years after his death, I think it’s a version of the city Chandler would have recognized.
I also got to L.A. this year, so I had the opportunity to my own location research. I was happy to discover I’d got most things right. And it gave me plenty of new ideas for the next couple of books.
As you said, Made To Kill is the first book in your The L.A. Trilogy. But how much of this trilogy do you have figured out?
Books two and three are all figured out, though I’m a little loose with my planning, so what I end up writing might veer a little from the original outlines. But the series was pitched as a trilogy from the start, so I had to show I knew where it was going. Book three even had a title, very early on, while book two remains nameless. The trilogy is three standalone stories, with a single larger arc across them.
How far along are you in writing the second book?
I tend to push myself pretty hard with work, so I generally stack major projects in sequence. I’ve got two other books to write before I start the second robot novel a little later this year. But The L.A. Trilogy is scheduled for regular publication — as November 2015, 2016, 2017 — so I’m sticking to a regular writing plan. I have other books coming out in between the robot ones too, notably the tie-in novels I’m writing for the TV show Elementary, and the last of my space opera trilogy, The Dead Stars. I’m also working on an ongoing monthly comic, The Shield, which I co-write with Chuck Wendig for Dark Circle Comics, the superhero imprint of Archie Comics. And there’s some other stuff coming down the pipeline. It’s going to be a busy few years ahead.
So has there been any interest from Hollywood into making Made To Kill into a movie or TV series?
I actually can’t answer this question either way. Sorry.
If Made To Kill was being made into a movie or television show, and the producers asked you who should star or direct, who would you suggest and why?
Made to Kill would be great as a TV show. The episodic nature of his individual jobs would be the case-of-the-week, while the plot of the first book, and the larger arc of Ray’s history, would carry over the season. Because of the period setting, you’d have the aesthetics of a show like Mad Men, mixed in with that retro, pulpy ’60s sci-fi vibe. That would be fun.
Casting is tricky though. Ray needs someone like Chi McBride. Ada is harder; she’s just a voice. But, what a voice. She needs to be a little older, with a smoky, husky quality. Perhaps Kathleen Turner, or Christine Baranski. She’s actually based, very loosely, on Anne Francis, who in 1965 and ’66 starred as private eye Honey West in the ABC TV show of the same name. She was thirty-five at the time, so a little younger than Ada should really sound, but she was perfect. Ada will always be Anne Francis in my mind.
Finally, if someone really enjoyed Made To Kill, which of your other books would you recommend they read next and why?
Empire State is in some ways broadly similar in style to Made To Kill; retro science with a hardboiled feel. And the sequel, The Age Atomic, also happens to feature robots, a whole army of them. For more down-to-earth crime/mystery, there’s the Elementary novels, which begin with The Ghost Line. You don’t need to be a fan of the show to enjoy them, so long as you know the main idea: Sherlock Holmes is a recovering drug addict living in New York.
But if I had to pick something for myself, I’d go with The Burning Dark. It’s scary sci-fi horror, essentially a traditional haunted house ghost story, but set in a distant space station one thousand years in the future. That was fun to write.