Deceased and Residing in Oakland

Deceased, And Residing In Oakland - Philip James

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Deceased and Residing in Oakland is a mystery thriller in the tradition of American Crime Fiction, set twenty-five years after the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. San Francisco is a city under siege — it’s heaving with refugees and it’s seething with crime — but it’s still a city. It’s got cops and courts and commerce, and it’s got one burned out cop in particular living a careful life a bay away from the rot that still stalks the suburbs, looking for a heartbeat. All he wants is a quiet life, but when he’s hired to track down the mysterious daughter of one of the city’s elite and the case starts killing his friends, he’s forced on a high-velocity ride among the eccentric citizens and dangerous diversions of fortress San Francisco and all the way back to the last place he ever wants to be.

The story is a fast-paced genre-mixer presenting a hard-boiled mystery in the style of 1940s noir but with characters, twists and tension that can only occur in a Bay area struggling to sustain the remains of civilization. The result is a world-building exercise that depicts a thorough and convincing city of high-density, multi-purpose buildings, Frankenstein cars and an economy based on dark entertainments and goods retrieved from the suburbs by daredevil privateers.

Author Philip James makes no effort to hide his admiration for preceding pulp greats and the narrative regularly veers very close to homage, with an endless supply of Chandlerisms like “Mean in a feral, fundamental way. Mean the way cats are stealthy and bees are industrious and vultures are indiscriminate diners.”,  “She finished her drink and brought the glass down like the gavel of a hanging judge” and “There was a night behind her that was more than mere darkness.”

But the attention to noir narrative doesn’t make this any less a zombie thriller, and the style extends to the undead as “like an army of macabre marionettes made of broom handles and sack cloth” and “staggering and broken and with parts missing and debris acquired, like a taxi that’s just driven madly through a dense jungle.”

The plot and poetry are matched by the population of eccentrics including a one-armed barkeep, a philosophy professor preaching Nietzsche beneath the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, a alluring blonde pinup girl who can out-drink the toughest detective, a ruthless villain with a sadistic henchman, the world’s luckiest pirate and a shell-shocked former zombie-squad officer with an overdeveloped sense of symmetry and paralyzing fear of the undead.

Lightly On Sacred Ground

black_eyed_blonde_coverRaymond Chandler’s dead so he won’t object if I speak for him with regards to how he’d react to The Black-Eyed Blonde, the second effort to appropriate his voice and most famous creation, Philip Marlowe. I’m quite certain that he wouldn’t give a shit.

Chandler was an iconoclast, unimpressed and unintimidated by what were considered the giants of literature, even when he was forcibly inducted into their number, so he could hardly have objected to an irreverent cannibalisation of his own canon.

However that’s not what this is. The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (the nom de pulp of high concept Irish writer John Banville) is a meticulous homage, and it shows. It’s not a rip-off nor a convincing forgery. It doesn’t take Philip Marlowe into uncharted territory and it doesn’t subvert the genre. And all that would be fine with both me and Mr. Chandler, I’m quite sure, if it achieved the only goal that could logically remain — to read as though it was written by Chandler.

The inventory is fully stocked. There’s a knock-out dame, naturally, and ruthless heavies and even a MacGuffin imported wholesale from The Long Goodbye. There’s a mystery within a mystery that has Marlowe searching for a man that’s supposed to be dead and turning up improbable links to those that definitely are. There are killings and beatings and a vibrant sexual tension between the main characters. Above all Chandler’s narrative style, punctuated with original and evocative similes, is faithfully duplicated.

But the Black-Eyed Blonde doesn’t try too hard, it tries way too hard to sound like Chandler, and the result is inorganic and arrhythmic. If you’re familiar with the original lore the constant reminders of people and places and events from previous books becomes quickly tiresome and heavy-handed, and if you’re not you’d presumably be misled into thinking that these diversions are in some way relevant to the plot. Why is Marlowe arguing with this random doctor that he called to discreetly look into an apparent overdose? Well obviously because some animosity remains from the affair that Marlowe had with the doctor’s wife in the Long Goodbye.

The narrative never rises to heights of “…a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” (The Long Goodbye) or “She had eyes like strange sins.” (The High Window) but it’s not for lack of earnest effort. So instead we get overwrought exhibitions like “the rain was making the water in the lake look like a bed of nails.” and “the rain was coming down now like polished steel rods.” It’s not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation.

So the relationship between Marlowe and the sad-eyed Clare Cavendish is forced and inexplicable, the villains lack clear motivations and the inevitable similes are sterile and unrelated to the story. And the plot pays dutiful respect to this gallery of artifacts, even to the point of taking literally Chandler’s advice: “In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”*

Having said all that, Chandler and I are going to have to lean toward recommending The Black Eyed Blonde. It’s definitely Chandleresque and so long as you’ve already read everything else in the canon plus Hammet, MacDonald and Himes, it’s the closest thing you’re going to find to a new book by Raymond Chandler published in 2014.

*1950 April 15, Saturday Review of Literature, The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler (There’s a 1944 version that doesn’t include the quote “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”) http://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1950apr15-00013