In 2006, with the release of Christine Falls, the Booker-Prize-winning novelist John Banville began publishing “crime fiction” under the pen name Benjamin Black. Like his “literary novels,” these crime novels are psychologically astute, intensely plotted, and keenly aware of language.
With The Black-Eyed Blonde, however, Banville decided to try something new: to write a novel using Raymond Chandler’s most famous private detective, Philip Marlowe.
While Chandler’s fiction is read and esteemed, and his influence on detective fiction in particular and American literature in general widely acknowledged, his detective’s presence is mostly ingrained in the American consciousness through film and television. There have been several television series featuring the L.A. detective and many movies. Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum both played Marlowe, and successfully, but undoubtedly, the most iconic incarnation of Phillip Marlowe is that played by Humphrey Bogart. So pervasive are the film renditions of Chandler’s L.A., that I found myself casting the characters while reading The Black-Eyed Blonde. Sure enough there was a role for all the usual suspects: there is a creepy, effeminate Peter Lorre type, an enormous, gang-lord Sydney Greenstreet, a fetching Lauren Bacall character, and, of course, there is Bogart as Marlowe.
Banville himself is certainly aware of the hold that film has on the literary characters and early in the book he gives a winking nod to Bogart. Marlowe is sitting in the offices of a fancy country-club. There are cigars and brandy, chintz armchairs and fine china. Marlowe says:
“At that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some fruity type in white shorts and a blazer had come bounding through the door, inquiring with a lisp if anyone was for tennis.”
This is Banville’s joke, and nod to Bogart. Before he played tough guys in film, Bogart played in drawing-room comedies on Broadway. A long-lived story is that Bogart’s first professional line as an actor was as a young dandy, bouncing onto stage with his tennis whites and tennis racquet and inquiring “Tennis, anyone?” That Bogart also had a slight lisp, makes Banville’s nod even more on target.
But The Black-Eyed Blonde is not a film, it is a novel, and a highly readable one at that. The title is one of several possibilities that Raymond Chandler had filed away and which Banville received permission to use from The Raymond Chandler Estate. From there, somehow, Banville began channeling Chandler, because what he has created is an exceptional mirroring of Chandler’s style: the rapid-fire dialogue, the lyrical similes, and the sprawling, frenetic plot and subplots.
The plot is typical: the eponymous blonde, Clare Cavendish, enters Marlowe’s office and hires him to find a “friend” who has gone missing. When Marlowe discovers that the friend was killed and cremated two months earlier but that Cavendish had seen him just a few days ago, things get complicated. There are betrayals, murders, cover-ups, flirtations, and deceptions. And throughout it Marlowe maintains a strict code of honor–the characteristic that always set Marlowe apart from the rest. He protects his clients’ confidences, he takes no joy in the violence that is visited upon the deserving, he cannot be bought no matter what the price, and, while he can empathize with those on both sides of the law, he believes in justice. It is this chivalric honor that became the hallmark of the American noir hero.
But always, when reading Chandler–and now Banville posing as Chandler–the story seems secondary. It is the evocation of 1930s-40s Los Angeles, the elaborate metaphors (“He smelled like an over large man who had lain in the bath too long.”), the snappy dialogue that conjures up an entire world–a fictional world, perhaps, but one that we are very familiar with through both reading and film. And with The Black-Eyed Blonde, Banville re-captures that world perfectly, note for note.
The Black-Eyed Blonde is a fun, a quick, and a memorable read.