This should so have been a great find. A new “Philip Marlowe” novel written by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. Raymond Chandler is one of my favourite novelist (looking back, I see I put him at number 5 in my top ten, which is there or thereabouts), and John Banville is a Booker prize winner. The Sea, which I reviewed back in June 2012, is an ultimately flawed novel but which showed a lot of craft in its writing. O it took me a few seconds to decide to buy this. The combination should have worked – Chandler is not that hard a writer to imitate, he has so many recurring motifs, it almost writes itself. There’s the sultry blonde who turns up unannounced at Marlowe’s office, and offers him a job without telling him the whole truth; the slug on the back of the head that takes Marlowe out at a key moment, the stumbled upon body, the drugged drink, and so on. The language is tougher to copy – highly distinctive, of course, but elusive, as Banville finds here.
There were, however, looking back, some warning signals. For a start there was the strange “John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black”. I can understand the use of a pseudonym, the creation of a different writing persona to make it clear to the readers that they can expect a different experience – but “writing as” is really having your cake and eating it, saying “but it’s really me, Booker prize winning stylist here after all”. Then there was the ambiguity about the relationship with Chandler’s estate – is this an authorised use of his intellectual property or not? There is nothing on the cover to indication this, although it seems obvious it must be. On investigation, it appears this is an authorised use of Chandler’s copyright, but by a company which has bought this off Chandler’s estate, rather than something approved by surviving family members. So done for commercial gain alone. Then there is the title – The Black Eyed Blonde. There’s some ambiguity there – are her irises black, or, in the more traditional use of the term, has she bruised eyes? It is in fact the former, although do people really have black irises? In a short note at the end of this novel Banville explains that this title was in Chandler’s notes as a potential title for a future novel – but he didn’t use it for a reason I suspect. However fanciful Chandler’s imagery or imagination, there was a truth at the heart of it that is lost here.
So is this a parody, a tribute, an imitation? Was Banville taking a break from “proper” writing and having a bit of commercially rewarding fun – slumming it – writing something in the style of Chandler? I have a horrible suspicion that this was not done with the appropriate respect for Chandler/Marlowe, but was simply an attempt to screw some more money out of the estate. This cynicism might be harsh, but the real test is whether the novel works or not. Is it a success as an effective imitation of Marlowe? Can you forget, even for a moment, that you are reading a 21st century recasting of the genre? I’m afraid not. For a start, the novel lacks the pace of true Marlowe. He was a genuinely good detective – the detective here really does very little investigative work beyond asking police contacts for help, and interviewing, ineffectively, some obvious suspects. Loose ends are not followed up, whereas the real Marlowe would have tracked them down in a night. So for example a dead body is found to fake someone’s death – who was the body, was his death a convenient coincidence, or a murder? This question is never asked, whereas true Marlowe would have cared about this casual brutality. Banville’s Marlowe wastes huge amounts of time waiting for the case to break of its own accord, rather than tracking down leads. True Marlowe is also a man of deeply held convictions, and while this version does protect his client’s confidentiality, he speaks far too freely about the case to people he has no reason to trust. This Marlowe is frankly a bit slow – it takes him an age to realise his drink has been drugged, long after the reader has worked it out. Chandler’s novels are complex and sometimes confusing – this was straightforward and simple. There are other false notes struck – why does the black-eyed blonde not tell Marlowe that the man she sends him to find, Nico Peterson, was believed to have died in a hit and run incident several weeks earlier. Her reluctance to tell him this aspect of her story serves no purpose whatsoever. Later when Marlowe and Peterson’s sister are held up by two sinister Mexican thugs, they knock him unconscious, then kidnap, torture and kill her. Why would they leave Marlowe alive if they are such vicious killers?
I wonder – in 75 years will people be writing Harry Potter novels where a grown–up Harry goes back to Hogwarts to investigate mysterious goings on? Would that be as wrong as this feels? While I appreciate that there are plenty of examples where great authors works are completed and their worlds reimagined in a different context – Young James Bond for example, the completion of the Hitchhikers sextet, and the Sherlock Holmes tributes – I can’t think of a single one that has been genuinely successful. You wouldn’t do this for any other art form, and I am not convinced it is respectful to the original authors. Chandler didn’t write enough Marlowe novels – he couldn’t have done – but he left us with enough to make novels like this pointless, and a bit tawdry.