He’s been called the bastard child of Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene and a compulsively readable novelist of lean, prowling prose with a menacing, dark side. He wrote the most recent Philip Marlowe thriller for the Raymond Chandler estate, an extraordinarily candid memoir about drinking his way around the Islamic world, and his latest novel, The Glass Kingdom, is out this month.
Yet few people outside literary circles seem to have heard of Lawrence Osborne, which frankly is ridiculous. Thanks to Hollywood that’s about to change. In the past 18 months the film rights to several of his novels have been bought and, pending Covid restrictions, the films are in production.
Suddenly, he tells me on Zoom from his book-lined study in Bangkok, he is making money. “It’s all extremely new for me, but it’s been snowballing very quickly.”
Just before lockdown, Osborne, 61, was on set in Morocco with Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain. They were filming his 2012 novel The Forgiven, Fiennes and Chastain playing an English couple who are driving to a party thrown by rich friends in the Moroccan desert. On the way they crash into a young boy after Fiennes’ character has been drinking, with devastating consequences.
“We had to wait for Ralph for years to finish Bond and Kingsman before we could film,” says Osborne, swiping a hand through his hair. “And then five days before the end, they closed the borders and everybody had to leave. So in September we have to go back with Ralph, who’s been a real trooper.”
Matt Smith also stars, as does Osborne himself. “I have a little cameo scene as a seedy expat writer with a cane,” he says, breaking into a gleeful high-pitched laugh.
He bought the silver-topped rosewood prop in Tokyo after suffering a herniated disc in a motorbike accident in Bangkok. It cost a fortune, he says, “but I can’t let the side down on the fashion accessories”. More laughter. This, after all, is a man who owns the Brioni suit and striped pyjamas that once belonged to Graham Greene and “fit me like a glove”.
Meanwhile, Amazon has seen off Alicia Vikander’s production company to secure the rights to film Beautiful Animals, another exquisite tale of Westerners coming a cropper abroad, only this time on the Greek island of Hydra. Two rich young women, restless on holiday, befriend a Syrian boat refugee and persuade him to commit a crime, which, of course, goes horribly awry.
“I got paid a huge amount because we had all sorts of people bidding, including Alicia, who wanted to play Naomi [the main character], but Amazon had more money. I went with that, maybe wrongly,” he adds, sounding a little remorseful.
Then there’s Hunters in the Dark, about a young English teacher in Cambodia who wins some money gambling and takes a wrong turn. The film stars Aneurin Barnard and Alex Pettyfer, and is being directed by Simon “Staged” Evans. “When the Cambodia borders open, we’ll film.”
And then Only to Sleep, the Marlowe book Osborne wrote for the Raymond Chandler estate two years ago, which has been optioned by William Monahan, reputed to be making a trilogy of films with Liam Neeson as Marlowe. It’ll be interesting if it happens. Osborne decided to age Chandler’s detective by a few decades and set the story, about a fraudulent life insurance claim, in late Eighties Baja on the Californian/Mexican border, where he once worked as a journalist on a local newspaper.
He launches into a story about how he rode alongside a cop in El Centro, back in the day, chasing a suspect. “I was carrying his shotgun for him, which was totally illegal, but we were alone and he said, ‘just carry the f**king gun’.” The policeman told him he’d get fired if that made it into print. “And of course being the prick that I am, I put it in the story,” Osborne is hooting with laughter again. Needless to say he got fired from the newspaper too.
A natural raconteur and a bit of a blagger, he is full of such amazing stories. Born in Windsor, brought up in Ealing and then moving with his market researcher father and radio playwright mother to Haywards Heath at the age of 10, Osborne is the product of a secondary modern and grammar school education, with a perfect understanding of the English upper and upper-middle classes. He read English and medieval Italian at Cambridge and studied with the great Dante translator Robin Kirkpatrick, “who was an enormous influence on me and with whom I first thought about Buddhism”. He went on to do a Masters in ancient Greek at Harvard. He taught non-fiction creative writing at NYU in New York, but decided academia wasn’t for him: “it attracts weak personalities”.
At one point, Osborne and his now ex-wife lived in what was communist Poland on a collective blueberry farm, which shattered his illusions about politics. “I was very lefty at the time, but it turned me off the whole model of the world,” he has said.
In the Noughties, he moved to New York as a journalist and Anna Wintour offered him the job of Vogue’s wine critic. “I did a conman act and blustered my way into it. I know nothing about wine,” he says, with another howl. “I’d meet the guys in the wine estates, drink everything they’d got, put it on expenses, and my driver would take me home.”
He says alcoholism runs through the Irish side of his family, that heavy drinking is part of the English make-up and that alcohol is “merely a materialisation” of our own nature. “To repress it is to repress something that we know about ourselves but cannot celebrate or even accept.”
He tells me about visiting a distillery in Pakistan for a piece for Playboy magazine. “It was very weird and conspiratorial, we were surrounded by al-Qaeda outside and started drinking strawberry-flavoured vodka and getting tipsy.” These days he avoids spirits, except Japanese whiskies.
His latest novel is set in Bangkok, about a naive American woman in her twenties who arrives in Thailand with a suitcase containing $200,000 in cash she has made illegally. Like all his novels, it’s sinister, sensuous, and wonderfully evocative of place, with much of the action taking place in the “glass kingdom” of the title, the very building Osborne himself lives in now.
He has been in Bangkok for eight years, lives alone with his poodle Whiskey and is cagey when asked about his current relationship. “Let’s put it like this: I have a happy domestic life and I’m not out at the bars every night. A lot of people assume I’m here for the hedonism, but it’s not the case.”
Osborne talks on for another hour, too entertainingly to ask him to stop. He tells me why he thinks there’s a spiritual crisis in western culture, which is partly of course what he’s writing about, and he utterly derides the march of the virtue-signalling, white middle-class Left. “You’re not going to do woke stuff on Netflix and sell to Malaysia!” He talks about the economic and class polarisation in the US, and then about what is happening now in China, which is unimaginably worse. “I’ve been watching the virus, since the first case outside China was here in Bangkok. I know the ‘wild flavour’ wet markets in southern China quite well, as I wrote about them in 2005 after Sars. Yet it’s also possible that the virus was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan virology lab, and that scenario was probably dismissed prematurely at the beginning. It’s reasonably likely, alas. As an armchair epidemiologist, I’m appallingly anxious to have a theory — but there can’t be one until Beijing opens the door a bit.”
His next novel, On Java Road, is set in Hong Kong, and due out next year.
Finally I ask him if he still has his death certificate hanging up in his study, which he bought in Manila for $100 as part of a news story he was writing about international insurance fraud.
“Yes,” he says, “not only do I have it, but I make a point of looking at it and reading it every day. Frankly it’s a reminder that this is what life is.”