Wednesday, 26 March 2014

THE BLACK EYED BLONDE: JOHN BANVILLE'S BENJAMIN BLACK'S RAYMOND CHANDLER'S PHILIP MARLOWE

The English relationship with Raymond Chandler differs from the American. Their perception of Chandler as the English schoolboy he was gives him a certain claim to literary cache that is open to few Yanks. At the same time, it consigns him to the borders of a ghetto from which very few writers escape. Philip Marlowe is, in these terms, a borderline figure himself: not quite as 'intellectual' as, say, a Morse (despite Marlowe's name there's no poetry, no opera in his life, only chess) and his cases are not cleverly constructed crossword puzzles (see my essay on the Guardian's Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Fiction here). It was nearly 70 years ago Chandler himself debunked such ideas in a famous essay in the Atlantic Monthly, and now here we are with a Chandler sequel written by the estimable John Banville, using his slightly less estimable Benjamin Black persona. And though Banville is, of course, Irish, it is as if Chandler were still being lifted to the heights of a serious novelist, but at the same time being held back from them; a very clever way of having your criminal cake crime and eating it too.

Because of the first-person narration it is always difficult to separate Marlowe and Chandler, but Banville is if anything better on the former. His tone is very close to Chandler's, his use of metaphor and simile much more restrained than some of the neo-Marlowe's who came along in Seventies, often wafting in on clouds of purple metaphor. In some ways, the tone seems closer to Ross MacDonald's than Chandler's, a little less showy, less self-conscious but more reflective. It flows well, and it should hook even the most discerning Chandler fan very quickly.

It's also a very knowing pastiche, recalling key moments or settings from a number of Marlowe novels (and films), including the detective taking a Mickey Finn, and the inevitable scenes at the private club which hides many secrets. Clare Cavendish, the black-eyed blonde of the title, is a quintessential Chandlerian femme fatale, and as he delves deeper into the mystery he's been hired to solve, and the bigger real mystery that sits behind it, Marlowe finds himself in that classic noirish dilemma, of wanting what you know will be wrong for you, and overcoming your resistance to self harm.

But this is where Banville's Marlowe seems a little bit off. It starts with the situation; this story takes place after Marlowe and Linda Loring have, what? established a relationship, but Marlowe falls for Clare like a bozo out of a noir movie. He lacks the intrinsic suspicion and sometimes profound distrust of women that Chandler's Marlowe has, and seems more in schoolboy awe of them, as Chandler's English schoolboy probably was. It's not just that he's closer to the Bogart of the early stages of The Big Sleep than to Marlowe; he's actually closer to Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. At one point he worries, 'before I'd ruined everything', which sounds more like a high school boy's worries than a lonely private dick's.

A couple of moments jarred me. One was when Clare mentions a 'Pascalian wager' and Marlowe asks 'who's Pascal'. Perhaps I missed some irony there, because I'd assume Marlowe would know of Pascal, and his asking 'who' suggests he does. Maybe it's a British thing. So is describing a poured drink as a 'generous measure', something I've only ever heard Brits (not Irish) use. Yanks tend not to measure their booze, especially in detective novels. 

Banville's finale is another thing that will probably be more fun to those who know their Marlowe well. It brings back one of the key Marlowe characters, but if anything the final scenes are underwritten and anti-climactic; Terry Lennox is here and gone too quickly, the gathering is like one of those drawing room scenes in a cozy mystery where everything will be made clear, and comes complete with a little theatrical humour. And then there's the famous Chandlerian guy with a gun his hand walking into the room. I don't wish to add more spoiler than I have, because I liked the book enough to recommend, and enough to think it could have been better. In an odd way, he gets the feel of Chandler's prose better than, say Robert B Parker's Marlowe, but Parker got the feel for the story better. Banville's produced the better novel, but it doesn't stand with Chandler's best, whether you judge by the crossword puzzle rules, the literary ones, or indeed Chandler's own.

The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black
Macmillan/Mantle, £16.99 ISBN 9781447236689

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

This review would be better if banville was British