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Blends with Chandler like a tarantula on a slice of angel food
on 4 January 2014
Unlike many other reviewers here I didn't get on with this book at all. It's partly my own fault - I love Chandler so there was always a risk that someone else trying to revive Marlowe wouldn't suit me at all, but I admire John Banville and thought he might be the man to do it. Sadly, he isn't
This is a decent enough detective story, but its narrator is simply not Marlowe. Banville has a crack at reproducing the distinctive, laconic narrative style, but it's not right at all, I'm afraid. Chandler was a truly great writer of English, in my view, and it would be unfair to criticise another writer for not reproducing his style exactly, but it seems to me that Banville hasn't let go sufficiently of his own style (which is excellent in its own way) to allow Marlowe to emerge in any sort of convincing form.
Banville and Chandler are both masters of description but in very different ways. For example, Banville's narrator in Ancient Light describes a character thus: "She really is of the most 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 another." Marlowe's description of Moose Molloy, however, begins, "He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck." They are two brilliant but wholly different styles. It seems that Banville can't quite subordinate his own style to Chandler's and the result is that Marlowe's dry, ironic voice is replaced by what reads like a pastiche of a deservedly forgotten 1950s English or Irish detective novel.
For example, very early on his client refuses to respond because Marlowe is looking out of the window. He says, '"Don't mind me,' I said, 'I stand at this window a lot, contemplating the world and its ways."' Well, Marlowe would stand at the window in that way, but he would never, ever, use the hackneyed and clumsy phrase "contemplating the world and its ways" and there are dozens of other similar examples. In just the next few pages he says "...if you consider Buckingham Palace a modest little abode," "... I didn't think I should light up in this lofty glass edifice," and so on. Little abode? Light up? Edifice? Not from Marlowe. And "I was bent on staying footloose and fancy free," is just stale cliché unworthy of either Banville or Chandler, quite apart from being utterly un-Marlowe. The tone is all wrong throughout, the snappy wit is replaced by plodding, clumsy irony and the voice - the absolutely vital element in Marlowe - doesn't ring true at all.
I'm sorry to be so critical of an author whom I admire and of a book which, as a crime novel, isn't bad, but trying to make it a Marlowe novel was a grave mistake, I'm afraid. To those of us who know and love Chandler's original books and have followed Marlowe as he scoops a drunk Terry Lennox off the sidewalk, causes Mr Lindsay Marriott to look as though he had swallowed a bee, throws Carmen Sternwood out of his bed and through a thousand other things, this simply won't do. Readers who don't know Chandler might enjoy the book, but if you know the originals my advice is to leave this one well alone.