Detective Philip Marlowe returns in Benjamin Black novel The Black-Eyed Blonde.
A recent addition to the Penguin Modern Classics canon, The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald, comes with an introduction by the Booker Prize-winner John Banville. He opens by quoting from an essay by Raymond Chandler called Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story. Each of these stories, Chandler writes, “must consist of the plausible actions of plausible people in plausible circumstances”.
Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, the first hard-boiled hero, was one of many such “plausible people”. Macdonald continued the trend with Lew Archer. In between, Chandler’s own Philip Marlowe was the genre’s top private eye and, thanks to classic writing and classic film treatment, the one that has endured. Marlowe’s first outing, The Big Sleep, was published 75 years ago this month. In testament to Marlowe’s timelessness and in celebration of Chandler’s art, Banville – or rather his crime-writing alter-ego, Benjamin Black – has recreated the famous, world-weary, soul-searching gumshoe and continued his “plausible actions” in Bay City, California.
The Black-Eyed Blonde’s plot can be stripped to its bare essentials. One hot summer’s day, Marlowe is solicited by a seductively beautiful and wealthy heiress to track down her former lover. No sooner has Marlowe begun his investigation than a corpse shows up, that of his missing man. However, Marlowe’s client is sceptical, claiming she recently sighted him in the street – “He didn’t look dead at all.” Confused and with few leads, but spurred on by the riddle and enticed by a temptress’s wiles, Marlowe rises to the challenge and is soon entangled in a murky case involving heroin, an exclusive club for the super-rich and a family that will go to extreme lengths to preserve their reputation.
Plot matters, but Black knows style is paramount. For Chandler, style was dexterity with language, whether in crafting nuanced conversations or conveying mood and tension. Black proves to be well-versed in Chandler’s idiom. Playboys have fun with broads. Hoodlums are armed with persuaders and risk being slugged or locked up in the sneezer. Stiffs pile up. Marlowe is slipped a Mickey Finn. As with Chandler, the dialogue crackles and the pages fly.
Black is equally proficient at emulating Chandler’s noirish tone. To accomplish this, Black sticks faithfully to Chandler’s template and ensures all the components are in place – “the whole schlamozzle”. Marlowe is the thinking-man’s detective, both quick-witted and prone to solitary chess and pipe-smoking philosophical speculation. He sneaks nips from the office bottle or props up bars, inflicting his “late-night grousings” on sympathetic barkeeps. His sleuthing involves contacts in high and low places and a reliance on instinct.
Best of all is the cool narration punctuated with requisite sardonic wisecracks. English ale makes Marlowe wince (“How come Britannia rules the waves, if this is what she gives her sailors to drink?”). There are lines that drolly demonstrate what he is up against (“If I’d thought before there was something fishy about this whole business, I had a hundred-pound marlin to grapple with now”) and which remind us that, despite being blunted by hard knocks, flinty Marlowe is also a wistful romantic (“That smile: it was like something she had set a match to a long time ago and then left to smoulder on by itself”).
Black also adds some neat touches of his own. His heroine (like Banville) is Irish, and there are musings on the old country and her father’s time with the republican hero Michael Collins – all of which gives rise to some jarring English-bashing (their “tendency to slaughter anyone who gets in their way”).
There seems to be a literary sub-industry in which the famous creations of dead authors are given a new spin by living aficionados. Unfortunately, the results are hit-and-miss: Sebastian Faulks successfully ventriloquised P G Wodehouse, but both he and William Boyd served up low-wattage 007 adventures. Black’s Marlowe caper is in a separate league. It is wonderful, an affectionate tribute and a labour of love that is sure to please Chandler devotees and endear new audiences.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance critic.