Which came first, Bogart or the books? I really can’t remember, but Raymond Chandler has been a fixture in my life since I was a teenager. The 1970s British paperback of his novel The Big Sleep (first published in 1939) featured a still from Howard Hawks’ movie of the book (1946). I remember staring at that book cover for hours: Humphrey Bogart, gun in hand, is on the phone in the foreground (his stubble massively exaggerated by the high-contrast treatment the book’s designer, James Tormey, had given to the photo) over his shoulder, Lauren Bacall smoulders, her lips a bright slash of almost shocking red on a cover that is mostly black and green, her eyes on the man with the gun. The message I took from this image was that if you wanted to sleep with women who looked like the young Lauren Bacall (which I certainly did), you had to be like Bogart (which, sadly, I was not).
Still, the design left me with a life-long passion for Chandler’s superb thrillers.
Penguin launched that particular cover in 1976, the year punk erupted in British music, and there was a definite punk feel about the book’s design. The high contrast photo with splashes of deliberately mis-aligned colour was the same look The Clash used for their first, eponymous album a year later (designed by Rosław Szaybo). The shared look may have been no more than a coincidence, but as a teenage would-be punk, the Penguin covers persuaded me that Chandler was on my wave-length – and he was. I’ve been re-reading his books fairly regularly ever since.
The Big Sleep was where I first came across orchids. When the detective hero, Philip Marlowe, enters the greenhouse of his elderly, millionaire client, he finds its air is “thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light has an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket”.
Reading the rest of the book, it quickly became clear that the “cloying smell” of the orchid house was the unmistakable reek not merely of sex, but of sex corrupted, gone bad. When Marlowe’s client, General Sternwood, asks him if he likes orchids, Marlowe replies “not particularly”. The General, despite owning a greenhouse full of them, concurs: “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute”. (In the Hawks movie this had to be changed to “the rotten sweetness of corruption” to avoid censorship.) The orchids’ resemblance to dead men’s fingers gives a hint of the murders to be committed and discovered later in the book. Without my being consciously aware of them, orchids entered my imagination accompanied not by images of delicate beauty, but (as has so often been the case in Western cultures) inextricably linked to sex and death.
About thirty years later, I got an email from a publisher. They were planning a series of slim volumes about plants; each would deal with a single family and explore its botany, history, ecology, mythology and broad cultural significance. Was there any chance I would like to contribute to the series? I was flattered, but had other things to do. I replied that I would have loved to contribute, but the only plants I would be interested in writing about were orchids, and they already had someone signed up to their orchid volume.
My desire to write only about orchids was not merely a product of my life-long love of Chandler. In the three decades since I first read The Big Sleep I had metamorphosed from a fake punk into an almost authentic academic historian of science. My research centres on botany, with Darwin and evolution being one of its major strands. As far as his scientific research is concerned, Darwin was primarily a botanist (he wrote six books on botany, more than on any other single topic), yet his botanical work seems to me to be curiously neglected (and I have no doubt that this is a result of plant blindness, the persistent and pervasive undervaluing and neglect of plants). How many people know what Darwin did that straight after publishing the Origin of Species? One might assume that he would have turned to human evolution (a subject he had deliberately avoided in his ‘big species book’), but he didn’t; he wrote a book on orchids (with the less-than elegant title On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing, 1860).
When I first read Darwin’s botanical works, they took me back to the first greenhouse I can ever remember being in, my father’s. Dad’s was entirely free of aristocratic orchids, but was devoted instead to sensible, middle-class tomatoes and cucumbers Every evening my father would get home from his exhausting day in London, tired and tense from his commute. After changing his work suit for worn, patched comfortable corduroys, walk up to the end of the garden and disappear into his greenhouse, from which he would not emerge until dinner was ready and he was thoroughly unwound. As children, my siblings and I were kept away from father’s sanctum by our mother, so it was a coming of age when I was finally old enough (i.e. quiet and sensible enough) to be allowed into the glazed retreat. Once I had proved I wouldn’t destroy his plants, my father taught me how to hand-pollinate cucumbers. The job was usually done by bees, but the glass kept them out and without their visits the cucumbers were small, bitter or entirely absent. He showed me how to identify the female flowers (by the minute fruit just below the flower), then take a clean, soft artist’s paintbrush and gently transfer the bright yellow pollen from the male to the female flowers. I had never considered the sex-lives of plants before – or even thought of them as having sex-lives – so for a boy in the midst of puberty, it was an interesting and memorable activity. (Not least because it was the first, and almost the only, time my father ever spoke to me about sex of any kind.)
As I later learned, Darwin had done his botanical work in his back-garden, in a greenhouse very like my father’s (albeit, rather larger), and had hand-pollinated his plants in exactly the same way. He even involved his children in his research, particularly with flowers. My devout father (who retained a scepticism about evolution until the end of his life), had inadvertently primed me to appreciate Darwin’s work on orchids, which provided crucial evidence in support of natural selection. His greenhouse was used to demonstrate that there was no design, plan or intelligence behind the extraordinarily elaborate “contrivances” that had evolved to create remarkably close relationships between orchids and their pollinators.
After visiting Darwin’s greenhouse (beautifully restored by English Heritage and open to the public), I decided that one day, I would have to write something about Darwin’s botanical work. So, the publisher’s offer was extra tempting; a chance to write about two of my favourite authors – Raymond Chandler and Charles Darwin – in the same book. But I had other, more urgent, things to do and put orchids aside while I tried to do them. Six months later, the publisher got back in touch: great news! Their orchid guy had pulled out, and as I had been so enthusiastic about contributing to the series, the book was mine! Welcome aboard!
Although I ought to have said no, I said yes. The seductive lure of orchids was too strong to resist, perhaps. In any case, this would be a short book (40,000 words) and I already knew quite a lot about orchids. Naively assuming I could polish it off in 12 months, I signed a contract.
Eleven months later, as the deadline loomed and I was starting to think that I should, perhaps, begin thinking about my orchid book, I was diagnosed with cancer. Not good news (in fact, as I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, I think I’m entitled to say that cancer is a pain in the arse), but there was some kind of silver lining – I could get out of writing the orchid book. I wrote to the publisher to tell them, explaining that I was about to start chemotherapy and had no idea when or if I would feel well enough to ‘finish’ (ahem) the book, so it would be best if they found a different author. Annoyingly, the publisher turned out to be civilised, compassionate and patient; take your time, they said (three of the most inadvisable words to say to an author), there’s no rush (three even more inadvisable words).
Chemo turned out not to be that bad (not, at least, as bad as being dead, which was the only alternative the doctor could offer me). However, cancer as a whole was tiring and my brain felt fogged by chemotherapy and anxiety. Analysis, argument and critical engagement joined eating mushrooms as things I simply could not do. So instead I just read. Starting with Chandler (my favourite comfort reading) and I found myself wondering about that scene in the orchid house; why would a man who dislikes orchids own so many? From that initial question, I found myself reading about Chandler and then reading anything and everything that had any kind of connection to orchids; each book or article led me to another, and each generous person (from botanists, to classicists, to literary critics…) who answered my emailed questions led me to more things to read, more questions to ask.
After chemotherapy finished and its effects wore off, I found myself writing the book I had planned to avoid; a nice, short, easy-to-read book seemed like a not-too-demanding therapeutic project while I was recovering. Apparently, I don’t do “short”. The first draft came in at 59,000 words (and that was after much, brutal cutting); more than 50% too long for the series, so the publisher and I parted company and the book eventually came out (as Orchid: A Cultural History) co-published by the University of Chicago Press and Kew Publishing. (And if you want to know my theory as to why Marlowe’s orchid-hating client grew them, you’ll have to read the book – there’s no space here.)
One of the most intriguing things I learned in the course of my research, was the answer to a mystery that had baffled Darwin: how did orchids that produced no nectar persuade insects to pollinate them, and why did such orchids often seem to mimic their insect pollinators (hence scientific names such as Orchis apifera, the bee orchid)? That puzzle was not solved until well after Darwin’s death, when several botanists discovered that the orchids not only mimic the insect’s appearance, they also give off a scent (undetectable to humans) that mimics the female insect’s pheromones. The male insect tries to copulate with the orchid, gets covered in pollen and then flies off, presumably frustrated, to search for another partner, spreading the first orchid’s pollen to new plants in the process. The orchids outwit the insects, getting themselves pollinated without paying their insect assistant in sweet nectar, the usual reward for a pollinator. Orchids were alluring enough to keep the insects coming back, to keep Darwin hard at work in his greenhouse, and to keep me reading for several years; there are no more fascinating flowers.
Author: Jim Endersby
Jim Endersby is an accomplished historian of science and Professor at the University of Sussex. He is particularly interested in the impact of empire on nineteenth-century Britain, science and literature, and in the reception and influence of Darwinism. We thank him for his contribution.
CWunderlin, R. P., B. F. Hansen, A. R. Franck, and F. B. Essig. 2018. Atlas of Florida Plants (http://florida.plantatlas.usf.edu/). [S. M. Landry and K. N. Campbell (application development), USF Water Institute.] Institute for Systematic Botany, University of South Florida, Tampa.