Book Review: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

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.The Black-Eyed Blonde

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.

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

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.

 

Book Review: Ancient Light by John Banville

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It seems appropriate that there are three book-covers for John Banville’s Ancient Light. For confusion–or perhaps”uncertainty” –is the appropriate word for the various threads that form the cloth of Banville’s novel. Weaving together three stories (at the very least), Ancient Light details the aging actor Alex Cleave’s misted memories and the challenges of his present life.

Particularly important in his mind are the affair he had when he was 15 with the 35-year old mother of his best friend, his daughter who killed herself in Italy ten years before the novel begins, and the young “movie-star”with whom he–a respected stage actor– is filming his first movie. And hovering in the background, drinking tea in the kitchen while Cleave writes these “memoirs” is his wife, Lydia, who is struggling with their daughter’s death in her own way.

So who are the women represented on the book covers? Is that Mrs. Gray, his first love standing in front of the shop? Or his daughter waiting impatiently for his arrival? Is that the actress Dawn Davenport’s slip? Or Mrs. Gray’s? Or his daughter’s? And who can that be dancing? Mrs. Gray and young Alex seems obvious. But could it also be the characters that Cleave and Davenport are playing in their film? Or his daughter and the mysterious man she was working for (and whose child she was carrying) when she flung herself into the rock-strewn sea?

John Banville photogaph Derek Speirs for The New York Times, 2005

John Banville
photograph © 2005, Derek Speirs for The New York Times

That we can not be sure is part of the joy and wonder–and admiration–one feels in reading Ancient Light. Banville is an exquisite writer–and I do not use that word lightly. Character description, dialogue, setting, interior life–all are rendered with keenly sensitive language and thoughtfulness. At one point, the sky is the color of “wetted jute“; at another, it is described as “a layering of bands of clay-white, peach, pale green, all this reflected as a vaguely mottled mauve wash on the motionless…canal.” Some of the writing is heart-wrenching in its perfection; some is amusing. Here is Cleave describing a “researcher” sent by the movie company to help him with his role:

Billie, however, is obviously a native of these parts, a short pudgy person in, I judge, her middle to late thirties. She really is of remarkable shape, and might have been assembled from a collection of cardboard boxes of varying sizes that were first left out in the rain and then piled soggily any old way one on top of the other. The general effect was not improved by the extremely tight jeans she was wearing, and the black polo-necked jumper that made her large head look like a rubber ball set squarely atop those precariously stacked cartons.

Here is what the aging Alex has to say early about love:

I should like to be in love again, I should like to fall in love again, just once more.

He is aware of both the poignancy of those words and the sadness of the thought in the presence of his wife.

What Ancient Light is most surely about is the past. Cleave–believing he is nearing the end of his career–is enamored by it, by the love affair with Mrs. Gray (he notes the inexactness of this phrase) and by the death of his daughter.

Because I am getting old and the past has begun to seem more vivid than the present, he states, and then later, when he learns of what he mis-remembered, he concludes that often the past seems a puzzle from which the most vital pieces are missing.

When in Italy with Dawn Davenport he meets a mysterious Argentinian, (a ghost? his doppelgänger?) who over a bottle of wine says this too him:

“Even here,” he said, ” at this table, the light that is the image of my eyes takes time…to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past.”

But the past is slippery for both Cleave and the memoir he is writing. He notices instances when the progression of time seems to slip, to miss a cog:

There are moments, infrequent though marked, when it seems that by some tiny shift or lapse in time I have become misplaced, have outstripped or lagged behind myself.

Cleave’s stories ultimately come together in subtle and satisfying ways. There are coincidences, but Cleave does not believe in coincidences. There are “apparitions,” though Cleave is reluctant to but wishes to believe in an afterlife. (Twenty years ago, Banville did write a novel Ghosts.) There is doubling and there are doubles. There is a subtle knowledge of and reference to Greek mythology, and a faint feeling that the ancient gods are still at work in the lives of these mortals. And it is all done in a lush, rich style that is the very antithesis of modernity’s spare and sparse writing.

John Banville is an author who writes intelligent and dense books that deserve a much wider readership. His novel The Sea won the Man Booker Prize (much to the dismay of critics who felt it wasn’t commericial enough.) And lately he has also been writing detective novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. And I just learned, when I mentioned Ancient Light to a friend that this novel is in fact the third of a loose triology featuring Alex Cleave, his wife Lydia and their daughter Cass.

I will have to hunt them down.