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

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