The Black art of channelling Raymond Chandler
Seventy-five years on, John Banville brings back Philip Marlowe in a new noir novel
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
The Black Eyed Blonde
Seventy-five years ago this month The Big Sleep was published in the United States. It was the novel that changed the way crime writing was seen. Raymond Chandler brought to the genre a literariness it had lacked – and wrote with a terse eloquence that mixed beauty and brutality. He showed that great writing could be as valuable as murder and death to a crime novelist. Today Philip Marlowe is less famous than he once was, but the Chandler estate is hoping to breathe new life into the private eye with The Black Eyed Blonde , a new Marlowe mystery by John Banville, under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black.
There is a certain irony in the choice of Banville. Like Chandler, he is a fine prose stylist, but his career developed very differently. Both men started out as journalists. Banville rose to be literary editor of this newspaper, whereas Chandler abandoned his career as a poet and essayist when he realised his talent did not match his ambition. Chandler instead headed for Los Angeles, where, after fighting in the first World War, he worked in the oil industry. He was sacked in the early 1930s for absenteeism and alcoholism. He took up writing pulp stories because he wanted to learn to write, and he thought detective fiction was a way to do this and to get paid at the same time. Despite the success of his Philip Marlowe series, he longed to write a serious novel. In the end it was this motivation, combined with his inability to escape Marlowe, that pushed him to write books such as The Long Goodbye .
Banville also took up writing fiction after an early period of unemployment, but he chose to write literary novels first, eventually winning the Man Booker Prize in 2005. It was only after this that he turned his hand to writing crime. Chandler would have been very jealous.
Banville has been given a tough commission. Like that of PG Wodehouse, Chandler’s style is hard to imitate, and, to his credit, Banville has not tried too hard to channel his predecessor, choosing to focus instead on the core of what makes the books work.
The Black Eyed Blonde opens typically. Los Angeles is too hot and Marlowe has too little to do. He is underemployed, waiting for a new client, until Clare Cavendish walks through the door, with her blond hair and black eyes (“black and deep as a mountain lake, the lids exquisitely tapered at their outer corners . . . I tried not to look at her legs”). She wants Marlowe to find her lover, Nico Peterson. Intrigued by the story as much as by the woman who tells it, Marlowe starts to investigate, finding himself caught up in a war over drugs. (The book is set in 1951; the drug of choice is heroin.)
Delighting in the Chandler myth
There is plenty more of Clare Cavendish and her legs, as well as a smattering of bloody violence. But this is a playful book, and Banville delights in the Chandler myth. The film Double Indemnity is one of several sly references. There are also hints that Marlowe liked to hang about in gay bars. Marlowe’s – and indeed Chandler’s – sexuality has come under much scrutiny, and although Banville adds nothing concrete to this he does seem to enjoy the occasional implication.
Much of the difference between Banville and Chandler ends up coming down to technique. Chandler liked to write in 12-line bursts. Each, he hoped, would contain a little magic. Often he found he was left with brilliant writing that did not fit the overall story, but he would rarely remove it, so his plots were often unwieldy. Banville’s world is far more ordered and carefully plotted than anything Chandler could have written. If anything, The Black Eyed Blonde is an attempt to re-order Chandler’s landscape and make it more coherent. When Marlowe eventually discovers Nico Peterson it turns out that he has stolen a pigskin suitcase with gold fittings. This is the very suitcase that appeared in The Long Goodbye , left behind by Terry Lennox. It is likely that Chandler thought to do something with it but that his writing method meant it became a forgotten detail. Banville, as if offended by this, chose to make use of it, and now The Black Eyed Blonde is a direct sequel to The Long Goodbye .
There is something very different about Banville’s Marlowe. Chandler’s hero, hardboiled and witty yet permanently lonely, may hope to connect with another person, but, on the rare occasion the opportunity appears, he is often bewildered by it. The conversations between Marlowe and other men are often loaded with romantic language, in part because Chandler had such difficulties connecting himself. Banville sees Marlowe’s loneliness as something to be cured, and he has him reach out to Bernie Ohls and Joe Green, the two detectives whom Marlowe encounters in the book (and whom he has encountered before).
At one point Marlowe wonders if Ohls would ever call him “Phil”. This is a strangely desperate, un-Marlowe thing to ask. Here Banville’s crime-writing technique supersedes his need to stick to the pattern set by Chandler. In the Quirke novels much of his character is revealed in conversation with his daughter and his friend Det Insp Hackett, and Banville repeats this here. It is a powerful tool, but in The Black Eyed Blonde it feels strange to have Marlowe trying to be so friendly with other men. It is just not something that Chandler would ever have him do.
That said, Chandler’s and Banville’s versions of Marlowe share similar DNA. Both intuit solutions rather than deduce them. The Black Eyed Blonde is no more a police procedural than Farewell, My Lovely is, and though the plot stacks up more neatly than in the former novel, Marlowe still seems to pluck the solution from the air. Equally, this modern Marlowe is motivated by a fierce moral code, one that is at odds with the world around him.
It means that Marlowe feels compelled to act to protect the weak: when Nico Peterson’s sister is violently killed, Marlowe works for her more than for Clare Cavendish, his ostensible employer. This is something Chandler would have approved of. Marlowe, for him, was always a knight, with a strict moral code.
As with all reboots, some readers will judge The Black Eyed Blond on how closely it matches Chandler’s style. There are moments when Banville captures the voice precisely (“I felt sorry for him, even if she didn’t. I was in that frame of mind; it was that kind of hour, after the rain”), and there are moments when he falls flat and the language feels cliched (“I’ve said it before, and I know I’ll have cause to say it again: women are nothing but trouble . . .”)
But if this is seen as the only measure of success then it will do the book a disservice. Even Chandler fell short of his own high standards. This is not a pastiche but an adaptation that, like a screenplay, reinterprets the source ingredients. Seen as a version of a novel by Raymond Chandler this book misses its mark. But seen as a crime novel in its own right it is a cut above anything else out there.
Tom Williams is the author of A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler, A Life