The 23rd novel by the Irish writer John Banville feels like a literary equivalent of Winston Churchill's description of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". The Black-Eyed Blonderepresents a literary brand-name wrapped in a pseudonym inside a Man Booker prize winner. Although this is Banville's attempt at a novel in the style of the Philip Marlowe series by Raymond Chandler, he has chosen to publish it under the name of Benjamin Black, the identity he has adopted for a series of crime novels (including Christine Falls and Holy Orders) featuring Quirke, an Irish pathologist in the 1950s.
The plot, though new, follows the master's hand. On a listless LA day, a beautiful young woman turns up in the PI's office. She is Mrs Clare Cavendish, heiress to a perfume fortune built by an Irish immigrant family, the Langrishes. For tantalisingly unclear reasons, Mrs C has hired Marlowe to find a former lover, Nico Peterson, who has disappeared. The private eye soon learns that Peterson has been killed and cremated, although this information becomes increasingly questionable as the investigator follows the trail deeper into the scent company.
The reputation of the original novels rests largely on two factors: the tone of the prose and the character of Marlowe. As the books are narrated in the first person, these are closely linked, so any Chandler stand-in must convincingly carry on both. But a popular perception has developed that Chandler's style consisted entirely of witty metaphors and witticisms stitched together. In fact, between the anthologised one-liners, the language is often looser and more discursive, but so strong is the legend of Chandler's high style that any pretenders will be judged on how successfully they achieve it.
The Irish understudy takes on Chandler's habits convincingly. The Marlowe books have a paradoxical tone of energetic weariness, which this imitation echoes in numerous lines. Visiting a witness, the detective reports that he "lowered himself into one of the armchairs. It was so deep my knees nearly gave me an uppercut." Painted roses on a bedside lamp throw shadows that look like "bloodstains someone had started to wash away and then given up on".
The biggest decision for any literary ventriloquist – faced also by the numerous authors, most recently including William Boyd, who have extended the James Bond franchise – is to what extent simply to transplant the central character, or, just as importantly, any of the actors who have played the role on screen. Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum are probably the Connery and Craig of the Marlowe adaptations and the protagonist of The Black-Eyed Blonde is easy to visualise as an older Bogart. Black-Banville's Marlowe – like Boyd's 007 – has begun to worry about the medical effects of all the drinking and smoking, but is otherwise recognisably the figure of the originals: chess-playing, introspective, sensitive, self-hating. "Women are not the only thing I don't understand – I don't understand myself either, not one little bit."
What Banville, through Black, brings to Chandler is perhaps an enhanced literary sensibility. His Marlowe is alert to nuances of language, delighted when the name of Mrs Langrishe is accidentally recorded in a message as "Mrs Languish", and thrilled when an interrogatee uses the word "milksop", which he has previously only ever seen written down. On another occasion, when the private eye gives his name, the response from the witness is "Like the playwright?", followed up with some apposite lines from Doctor Faustus.
Long before he finally took the Booker with The Sea in 2005, Banville hadbeen cast as the epitome of serious, prize-winning literary fiction, but the subsequent decade seems to have unleashed a pleasure in plot and playfulness that wasn't evident before. Even while routinely trashing crime novels, in interviews and at festivals, as "cheap", he has published them at the rate of almost one a year and now seems to have concluded that he would rather add to his shelf a Black-Chandler rather than a Black or a Banville. The genre of new books by dead writers is a curious and questionable one, but Banville and his crime-writing pseudonym have played the game as well as anyone could.
By Olen Steinhauer
About two-thirds of the way through “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” Philip Marlowe — that name might ring a bell — tells us he “lit up another cancer stick.” For a novel set in the early 1950s, this sounded anachronistic, so I went online to investigate. While a connection between tobacco and cancer was suggested in the 1930s in Germany, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang places the earliest use of “cancer stick” at 1959 — which is not to say that it wasn’t used before then.
That I made such an effort to research two insignificant words doesn’t merely peg me as the guy you don’t want to be stuck with at a party; it says something about “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” Benjamin Black’s latest mystery, and his first to feature Raymond Chandler’s famous private eye. Black recreates Marlowe’s voice (that is, Chandler writing Marlowe’s first-person narration) with such startling mimicry that a reader (this one, at least) can’t help cynically seeking out its flaws. Cancer sticks aside, “The Black-Eyed Blonde” could be passed off as a newly discovered Chandler manuscript found in some dusty La Jolla closet, leaving only linguistic detectives to ferret out the fraud.
It’s no secret that Benjamin Black is the mystery-writing pseudonym of the Irish novelist John Banville, and so the idea of this prizewinning writer channeling one of the most recognizably literary of crime novelists makes a good deal of sense. It’s a challenge Banville obviously approached with pleasure, reveling in the opportunity to work up the ornate similes that are the stamp of Chandler’s prose.
We meet Black’s Marlowe at the window of his office in the Cahuenga Building, peering down as a long-legged woman crosses the street, noting from the way she carefully checks for traffic that “she must have been so good when she was a little girl.” Since this is the fictional Bay City, you can bet she isn’t so good anymore. She is Clare Cavendish (née Langrishe), and she’s a wealthy perfume heiress. Within minutes, she turns up in Marlowe’s office — a “blonde with black eyes” — to ask for help finding her old lover, Nico Peterson, who has been missing for two months. Given the track record of beautiful blondes walking into private investigators’ offices, we know there’s a lot more to her story.
The twists and turns that follow involve missing persons, stone-cold Mexican hit men, easy-to-anger cops (Bernie Ohls, an old friend) and the impenetrable rich, as well as the participants in a gruesome and nearly fatal encounter at the indoor pool of the Cahuilla Club. It’s all par for the course for Marlowe, who suffers beatings and stoically faces heartbreak, drinking his way through a heady labyrinth of double-crosses that leads to a visit from an old friend in a blood-soaked drawing room. It is, as they say, a page turner, and terrific fun.
There are intimations of Black’s Irish background in Clare Cavendish’s mother, Dorothea Langrishe, “a tough old dame” whose husband, devoted to Michael Collins’s cause, was killed in the Irish civil war in a particularly terrifying fashion. Another clue appears when Marlowe heads off to the Bull and Bear, noting that “I can’t decide which are worse, bars that pretend to be Irish, with their plastic shamrocks and shillelaghs, or Cockneyfied joints like the Bull. I could describe it, but I haven’t the heart.”
Like the model Black is following, the overall story is less important than the individual scenes, and charting the cause and effect from Marlowe’s office to the corpse in the final pages may require a slug of whiskey and an aspirin. “Life is far more messy and disconnected than we let ourselves admit,” Marlowe tells us. “Wanting things to make sense and be nice and orderly, we keep making up plots and forcing them on the way things really are. It’s one of our weaknesses, but we cling to it for dear life, since without it there’d be no life at all, dear or otherwise.”
Despite the loyalty to Chandler that Black displays here, by the end of “The Black-Eyed Blonde” there’s an odd emptiness. Not merely the existential emptiness of the noir novel, where the hero is left, as always, alone, but a deeper emptiness, a suggestion that literary style has triumphed over content, leaving a hollowed-out place where the emotion should have been. Halfway through, I was already asking myself a poisonous question: Why write a book that reads so completely like Raymond Chandler 61 years after the publication of “The Long Goodbye,” his last great novel?
By now the conventions of noir fiction, as created by Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, have become such a part of our world, and so often parodied, that we can almost predict them before opening the next book. The femme fatale walking into the P.I.’s office and twisting him around her pretty finger while lying through her teeth; the drinking and the bursts of violence; the high-society folks with secrets to sweep under the rug; the soulless thugs and surly cops; and the dead who are, inevitably, not dead. Black has included them all here — and well — yet despite the impressiveness of his achievement, a reader in 2014 expects something fresher, if only the inversion of a few conventions.
I was reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’s satirical story “Pierre Menard, Author of the ‘Quixote,’ ” in which a 20th-century writer is reproducing “Don Quixote” word for word. The argument is that the new version is an original work because Menard’s times, life experience and purpose are different from those of Cervantes. What was once a picaresque novel is now a historical novel written, impressively, in an archaic language. “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” a novel that reads like a lost Chandler original but is written by a contemporary author, raises the question: What, beyond imitation and a paycheck, is Black’s purpose?
Am I being a killjoy? Probably, because despite my complaints I found “The Black-Eyed Blonde” entertaining, and any fan of Chandler’s work is going to enjoy it. Yet when a novelist of Banville’s stature resurrects one of the genre’s luminaries, he inspires the hope that this new outing will compete with Chandler and Marlowe’s finest appearances, even in some small postmodern way. Instead, this walk down the mean streets feels like one we’ve already taken in some half-forgotten Bogart movie, returning to a time when men were men and the women were so alluring, as the line from “Farewell, My Lovely” goes, they could “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Then again, that may be justification enough.