Monday, 13 August 2012
The Return of Philip Marlowe...
Thursday 9 August
There is nothing more certain to upset a writer's fans than to suggest his greatest hero is in need of resuscitation. This, though, is exactly the risk that the Raymond Chandler estate is running with the announcement that John Banville is to write a new Philip Marlowe novel. It was inevitable really. Bond – young Bond, new Bond, now William Boyd's Bond – has set the benchmark for reinvigorating a classic brand and where Bond goes other estates are sure to follow. But if the Chandler estate has learned one thing (other writers have tackled Marlowe before to varying degrees of success), it's the importance of getting a proper writer to do the work – this is no job for a ghost or a newbie – and in John Banville they have just that. I have to confess that I'm cautiously optimistic.
Though the news was met with praise and derision on Twitter, the choice of John Banville is a clever one. He has form in this field. His Quirke novels, written under the name Benjamin Black, are very good indeed. Set in 50s Dublin, Chandler readers will recognise more than a bit of Marlowe in the lonely pathologist with a weakness of drink and a habit of being drawn into crimes that are none of his business. There is so much to enjoy, from Banville's fine turn of phrase ("Grains of mica glittered in the granite of the steps; strange, these little secret gleamings, under the fog") to his ability to render the city of Dublin in carefully wrought prose. And like Chandler he has a willingness to forgo plot in favour of character. Though ostensibly about crime, the books are more about Quirke's uneasy relationship with his daughter than they are about murder and death. Chandler might have smiled at this successful balance of the literary and noir. It was something he himself certainly strove for and it was his wish to write novels that were serious and literary that pushed him to produce the books he did. In the early 50s he started a third-person novel, without Marlowe and almost without murder but found he couldn't quite bring it off. He set about rewriting the book and it became The Long Goodbye.
Despite Banville's debt to Chandler, the thin press release that announced the deal in America, suggests that there is a niggling worry. Banville, it claims, wants to bring back Marlowe's "good friend" Bernie Ohls. Marlowe worked with Ohls at the DA's office and he appears in both The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, but to call them good friends is a step too far. In fact, to call them friends at all is probably misleading. Philip Marlowe doesn't have friends: his defining quality is loneliness. The briefest of connections – Terry Leonnox in The Long Goodbye being one – result in betrayal. Isolation is the price Philip Marlowe has to pay for being a good man in the great wrong place that is Los Angeles. Chandler always saw this as key to his character. In one of his last letters he said as much: "I think he [Marlowe] will always have a fairly shabby office, a lonely house, a number of affairs, but no permanent connection … I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated." Hopefully John Banville will understand this when he comes to write his Philip Marlowe novel.
In the end, the new book will be judged on two things. Can Banville get to grips with Chandler's Los Angeles and can he capture the voice of Marlowe? Los Angeles' unique situation in the world – the money, the beauty, the sheer darn fakery of it all – made it a great subject for a novel and Chandler was one of the first to tackle it with vigour. He watched it grow from a village to a city on the edge of greatness but he saw the dark corruption that beat at its centre. Since he died, other writers have challenged Los Angeles in their fiction with success, but what will John Banville bring to it? Will he see LA for what it is or what it wants to be? And what will he do with Marlowe? The finest of fine lines separates pastiche from parody and when imitating a writer like Chandler there is a greater risk of falling flat. We shall have to see if Banville can bring it off but I, for one, can't wait.
• Tom Williams is the author of Something Mysterious In The Light, Raymond Chandler: A Life published by Aurum Press.
Tom Williams' blog: http://www.tomwilliamsonline.com/the-return-of-philip-marlowe/