Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, captures the nuance of Raymond Chandler, the master of crime fiction

03/09/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

“The Black-eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel” by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt, 290 pages, $27)

I confess I had my doubts.

When publisher Henry Holt announced that the estate of Raymond Chandler had approved the writing of a new novel about the author’s iconic character Philip Marlowe, I wondered why.

Between 1933 and 1958, Chandler published seven novels and several dozen short stories that are, along with Dashiell Hammett’s works, the foundational documents of contemporary crime fiction. Chandler’s influential style, a combination of the lyrical and the hard-boiled, and his vision of the detective character as a tough but lonely knight errant compelled by a private moral code have inspired countless other writers. For crime fiction fans, he’s a member of the pantheon.

Then I read who had been chosen to write the new book: Benjamin Black, aka John Banville. Banville is an acclaimed Irish literary novelist, winner of the Man Booker and a shelf of other prizes for such books as the “The Sea,” “The Infinities” and “Ancient Light,” wielder of a coolly refined, complex style often compared to those of Proust and Nabokov.

Banville is also Benjamin Black, the pen name he has used to publish six bestselling noir crime fiction novels, including “Christine Falls” and “The Silver Swan,” about a cantankerous pathologist named Quirke who lives in Dublin (Banville’s home) in the 1950s.

That made me more optimistic. Black’s novels are clearly cast in the Chandler mold, with atmospheric settings and plots that revolve around long-hidden secrets, societal corruption and the destructive nature of power and wealth. And Quirke – hard-drinking, often in love but essentially alone, determined to solve cases even when he knows it may very well imperil him – is Marlowe with a brogue.

Still – Chandler. It’s an understatement to say I’m a Chandler fan. Not only were his books my first real introduction to crime fiction, and my conversion experience to its gritty charms. In another life as a grad student in American literature, I wrote most of a dissertation on his novels (left unfinished when I became distracted by journalism). He is my guy.

Last year, when the sixth Quirke novel, “Holy Orders,” was published, I interviewed Banville via email. He had finished writing the Marlowe book, called “The Black-eyed Blonde,” and we talked about it, too. He had been reading Chandler since he was a teenager, he wrote,“and it was a thrill – if slightly unnerving – to try to write in his voice.”

And what he wrote about Marlowe seemed to me exactly right: “Marlowe’s is a tender sensibility wounded by the world’s wickedness. He tries to do what he can, in his small way, to ameliorate the general awfulness, but rarely succeeds. I admired Marlowe before, but now that I’ve written The Black-Eyed Blonde I sort of love him.”

So I opened the book hopefully – and I closed it entirely satisfied, even thrilled. Here, as evidence Banville/Black has nailed it, is the first paragraph of “The Black-eyed Blonde”:

“It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it’s being watched. Cars trickled past in the street below the dusty window of my office, and a few of the good folks of our fair city ambled along the sidewalk, men in hats, mostly, going nowhere. I watched a woman at the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood, waiting for the light to change. Long legs, a slim cream jacket with high shoulders, navy blue pencil skirt. She wore a hat, too, a skimpy affair that made it seem as if a small bird had alighted on the side of her hair and settled there happily. She looked left and right and left again – she must have been so good when she was a little girl – then crossed the sunlit street, treading gracefully on her own shadow.”

It’s all there, the Chandler voice: the crisply detailed description and sly similes that set a scene precisely, the world-weary bemusement of the narrator, his gimlet eye for the ladies and the delicately ominous foreshadowing of that last sentence.

For the woman crossing the street is (of course) the black-eyed woman of the title. Not that anyone has punched her – would that her troubles were so simple to define. Clare Cavendish, drop-dead gorgeous (of course) daughter of wealthy perfume maker Dorothea Langrishe, has unusually dark eyes,“black and deep as a mountain lake. A blonde with black eyes – that’s not a combination you get very often.”

That will not be the last unusual thing Marlowe notices about Clare. She has come to his shabby office to hire him to find Nico Peterson, a lover who has disappeared. She’s married, she tells Marlowe, and though she and her husband have an“understanding,” discretion is important.

Marlowe quickly discovers the story Clare told him is not quite real. Much later, he will think,“I came across a nice word recently: palimpsest. The dictionary said it was a manuscript with the original text partly erased and a new one written over it. What I was dealing with here was something like that. I was convinced that behind everything that had happened there was another version of things that I couldn’t read.”

That’s as good a description of a Chandler plot as I’ve ever read, and Black spins a fine version in “The Black-eyed Blonde.” Marlowe will be pistol-whipped and slipped a mickey, seduced and threatened, soothed by whiskey and gin and pipes and cigarettes. People from his past will pop up, notably from “The Big Sleep,” Chandler’s first novel, and “The Long Goodbye,” his best. And he will, in the end, be even more alone than he was at the start.

Black maintains that indelible voice and style throughout the book, but “The Black-eyed Blonde” is more than literary ventriloquism. It’s clear Banville does love Marlowe, and he’s reminded me why I love him, too.

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