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.
on 27 February 2014
Raymond Chandler's incomparable private eye Philip Marlowe is back and Benjamin Black, one of crime fiction's master provocateurs, is the man responsible. In a sequel that almost equals the original, he adroitly and convincingly picks up where Chandler left off in THE LONG GOODBYE to give us THE BLACK-EYED BLOND, a tale of the seductive young heiress who hires Marlowe to locate a missing man she says is a former lover. The man in question was supposedly killed in a hit and run several months earlier, but the lady insists that during her recent trip to San Francisco she saw him crossing the street.
Thus Marlowe, a smart guy with unyielding integrity, finds himself embroiled in a difficult and dangerous case as he travels the mean streets of L.A. in search of answers. I won't even attempt to summarize the plot -you will just have to read through it as Black's descriptive prose and his believable characters, whether it's a British millionaire named Canning who casually has folks brutally tortured and murdered or the very captivating blond beauty named Clare who has an agenda of her own, takes you through the twists and turns of the tale.
Set in the `50's, this noir adventure brings to life not the Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart versions (or even the dismal Eliot Gould version) of Marlow but more an amalgam of the Dick Powell/James Garner portrayals. This Marlowe is lonely, witty, relentless and easily charmed by a beautiful dame.
Raymond Chandler's stylistic influence is definitely present in Black's rendition of the hard boiled school of noir detective fiction but this Marlowe is definitely more Benjamin Black than Raymond Chandler.
Benjamin Black's (actually Booker Prize Winner, John Banville's) latest novel is one for those who, like he, we presume, have loved Chandler's detective hero and his world and thirst for more.
In this it follows a current trend with new Bond novels from the likes of Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd, new 'official' Holmes from Anthony Horowitz and a forthcoming new Poirot from Sophie Hannah. Where this book parts company from those is that whilst those books are written for an audience that enjoyed the originals, but does not require you to have read any specific story from the original canon, this is effectively a sequel to 'The Long Goodbye'. Do not read this book if you haven't read that. Not only does the action follow on from that book, there are frequent references to the characters and plot of that novel. If you have yet to read one of the best detective stories of its type, you don't want to spoil it by reading this first.
With any new story of this kind there are effectively two important questions: how well does it capture the tone and feel of the originals and how well does the story stand up on its own terms? Black's book manages both very well, if not exceptionally.
The use of language is strongly reminiscent of Chandler: amused, wry, literary and with a good eye for a cutting detail. His description of the powerful heat of an L.A. summer captures a lot of the hardboiled but intelligent style Chandler created-
'The sun wasn't getting any cooler . I took out a handkerchief and swabbed the back of my neck. There were days in high summer when the sun works on you like a gorilla peeling a banana.
'"Well, thanks anyway," I said and stepped past him. The air rippled above the roof of my car. I was thinking how hot to the touch the steering wheel was going to be. Sometimes I tell myself I'll move to England, where they say it's cool even in summer.'
If the tone and style is deliberately reminiscent of Chandler, then, this still manages to retain a certain life of its own. If anything there is a greater literary playfulness here than the originals; quotes and allusions are dropped into the narrative in a way that suggests an author having fun. Marlowe's not quite meeting with Gary Cooper similarly seems to show that Black isn't weighed down by the desire to live up to Chandler but is prepared to play with the characters and world.
The story starts in a typical fashion - a beautiful woman walks into Marlowe's office with a job for him, a man to be found. Is the job as simple as it sounds? Is she being entirely honest with him? If it sounds a little cliched, it is, but Chandler, at his worst, felt like a poor pastiche of Chandler at his best and this is rather better. It isn't perfect, perhaps. Marlowe's willingness to put himself out for a client who has yet to pay a retainer seemed to strike an off note, to me at least. In general, however, it is easy to be swept along by the investigation.
The eventual solution and resolution of the story lacks the messiness of Chandler's stories - we are a long way from the unresolved questions that dogged the screenwriters of 'The Big Sleep'. It works relatively satisfactorily and changes the way the lives of other characters from Marlowe's world see their lives pan out. For our hero, he still has his PI licence and mean streets down which to tread.
It is no secret that "Benjamin Black," author of nine noir crime novels, is the pen name used by highly esteemed Irish author John Banville for the crime novels he writes in tandem with the prize-winning literary novels he writes under his own name. The Black-Eyed Blonde, his ninth noir mystery, is his first novel written from the point of view of Philip Marlowe, the popular hard-boiled detective featured in six novels and a series of short stories by one of the earliest noir novelists, Raymond Chandler, between 1939 and 1958. Hard-drinking and often down-on-his luck, detective Philip Marlowe is shown as a loner who says what he thinks, a man with few friends and no long-term love in his life.
As The Black-Eyed Blonde opens, Marlow is looking out the window of his office, near the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood. In straight-forward and smart prose he establishes the setting and the mood, noting that "it was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it's being watched." The loneliness and the bleak setting, conveyed through offbeat observations by Philip Marlowe, change briefly when Marlowe gets a surprise visit from a beautiful woman who wants to hire him. The "black-eyed blonde," Mrs. Clare Cavendish, wants Marlowe to find Nico Peterson, a movie agent who disappeared mysteriously two months ago.
As the novel develops, Marlowe becomes better acquainted with Clare Cavendish, the daughter of a wealthy perfume designer. When Clare tells Marlowe that she saw Peterson a week ago but that she was also present when he was "killed" months earlier, Marlowe realizes that something is terribly wrong. He goes to the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office to view scenes of Peterson's death, then meets with a friendly cop to discuss the case for more information. He is concerned because everyone seems to know he is working on the case, and he suspects he is being watched.
However "pulpy" Black's writing may be, in keeping with that of Chandler, it certainly ranks with the best of pulpy, involving the reader and immediately setting up Marlowe's latest adventure without using obvious clichés. At the halfway point, the novel changes from being a lightweight period mystery, however well written and however much fun, to much darker fare. The mood of the first love scene in the novel changes without warning when Marlowe learns that a body has been discovered at the Encino Reservoir. Overlaps occur among the different subplots, and before long, Marlowe himself is in danger. The investigation broadens into drug running, the dangerous backgrounds of some characters, and a suicide. The dark twist at the end of the novel may surprise even sophisticated fans of noir. Critics and most fans of Raymond Chandler have celebrated the closeness of Black's version of Marlowe to that of the original, though the novel's cold aloofness may put off some readers.
on 27 June 2014
I remember well the feeling of disappointment on first reading Chandler’s famous passage which starts: “... down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Simply because it is difficult imagining Marlowe even thinking such thoughts himself. But then perhaps that was deliberate – Chandler rightly keeping his own opinions out of it, and indeed rising above them.
And, thankfully Benjamin Black does the same. Possibly his Marlowe is a little more sensitive and thoughtful, but at least he does not try too hard to emulate Chandler, and pander too much to the “guardians of the temple.” Maybe his wise cracks don’t crackle as much, but the wit is still there. And the elegance and fluency of his writing is as good as one would expect from John Banville.
There is one respect in which Black surpasses Chandler. Chandler was not really a great plotter in his full length novels – they sometimes give the impression of short stories cobbled together. It is the descriptions and dialogue which delight one most. But Banville, as he has shown elsewhere, knows how to plan a story. And he is a great story teller capable of thinking up unusual and original situations and events, and the storyline here is as taut and as clear as one would wish.
There will always be people who get “precious” about their favourite writers. Don’t worry too much about the comparisons – this book is first-class in its own right. You don’t have to be a admirer of Chandler to enjoy it.
on 20 April 2014
LRB was recently quite unkind about Benjamin Black's working of Marlowe. Rather unfair I thought. Like the original Chandler he uses a relatively simple plot line, a femme fatale and the odd left of field intrusion to move things along! Chandler himself wrote that when the plot seems to be flagging he can moves things along simply by having 'two men walk through the door carrying guns' and Mr Balck performs this trick with panache and a little literary joke around the name of Mr Hendricks.
Speaking of Gin - yes the Gimlet gets more than fulsome praise, but Marlowe seems to smoke more but drink rather less than the original.
What Black / Banville is really the master of is the 'interior voice' of his protagonist. This flourishes in The Infinities and The Untouchable, but he doesn't let the reader down with more commercially driven work like this, and that is admirable.
I am a big fan of Banville and of Chandler. In truth both excel at their own ouvre and I have a sneaking suspicion that Chandler wrote better under the influence but that Banville / Black restrains that side of things when he is working!
on 22 April 2014
More than 20 years ago Robert B Parker wrote a sequel to THE BIG SLEEP, called PERCHANCE TO DREAM. Why, we Chandler aficionados asked - did the world need a sequel to a classic? Of course not. Not one with so little merit. Fast forward to 2014 and Banville/Black has had the really clever idea of.... a sequel to THE LONG GOODBYE. Did the world need a sequel to that classic? Of course not. Not one with as little merit as this.
on 25 March 2014
To take on Chandler you have to accept the conventions he set, otherwise the reader is infuriatingly reminded on every other page that this is NOT Chandler. Black/Banville has adopted some of Chandler's mindset, but not all; thus Marlowe having sex with Clare Cavendish really doesn't work because Chandler would never have contemplated writing it that way.
There are occasional breaches of 'period' either in the choice of word - he wouldn't have given the waitress five dollars, he'd have given her a fin - or in his descriptive passages. On the other hand, some of his phraseology is wonderfully in tune with Chandler and hits the bell beautifully. Most of all, though, the plot lacks Chandler's labyrinthine, layered, complexity - it's a bit too straight-down-the-road.
The trouble with Chandler is his genius. Black/Banville is good, some might say great, at donning his master's overcoat. But the genius eludes him.
Maybe next time.
Based on the Philip Marlowe more often associated with Humphrey Bogart than perhaps Raymond Chandler, Benjamin Black has created a story Chandler would recognise. With any writer following in the path set by a previous author, the comparisons are perhaps unfair and misleading. As a stand alone story it is satifying and well contructed, as sharp as anything Chandler wrote, just a little missing on the black humour. If you like your detectives hard boiled then Marlowe is for you. This tale involves the usual family intrigues, as a beautiful woman, in Marlowes world they all are, hires him to find a missing friend, who may or may not be a gigolo and is drawn into a world of eccentric and rich people with more to them than meets the eye. As in any Marlowe story not everything is as it seems. The ending, again is not what you expect, and it does tie up one of Chandlers loose ends. Recommended to anyone needing a fix of a Noir-ish detective.
This is a perfectly readable detective story mimicking the style of Raymond Chandler and with his famous gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, as its lead character. The atmosphere and language seek to echo Chandler, and Benjamin Black (actually the author John Banville) makes a reasonable fist of it...but only up to a point. The key issue for me was why Black/Banville chose to mimic rather than simply set the novel in a similar style and period of the Marlow novels. As it is, how much you enjoy this will spend upon just how much of a marrow fan you are: if you are looking for Chandler's writing and language you will probably be disappointed; if you have not read any Chandler before and don't really care about quality of the mimicry you'll probably be quite satisfied. For me, I just had to keep reminding myself that this was not Chandler and simply to enjoy the story telling. Good enough, but not Chandler....