A lot of the reviews of this novel praised the plotting, one going so far as to say it was better than Chandler’s. My impression on a first read was that the plot of the Black-eyed Blonde was fairly linear and straightforward, and Marlowe is something of a passive observer of the narrative rather than someone who shapes it. All, in fact, very un-Chandleresque. But it is worse. I had a spare half hour on the tube yesterday, and with nothing else to read I looked again at the first chapter of this novel. What I was looking for is whether Black’s attempts at Chandler’s imagery were successful or not. Broadly they are. Inevitably there are some misses, but an above average number of hits. I won’t quote any here because out of content they can look weak, but that’s not what I wanted to write about anyway.

The plot of the Black Eyed Blonde is simple enough. Marlowe is asked by the title character to find a missing person, Nico Peterson. After a few fruitless lines of enquiry, Marlowe asks the police if they know where Peterson is, and the information is quickly returned – he died in a hit and run accident a few weeks earlier. When Marlowe tells his client this her response is (end of chapter 4) “I know”. Marlowe is so shocked by this he actually has to ask her to repeat herself, which is in itself completely un-Marlowe like.

So why did she ask Marlowe to investigate Peterson’s disappearance when she knew that he had died in a hit and run accident. The answer she offers is that she saw Peterson alive a few weeks later, and therefore believed the accident was a fake, or a case of mistaken identity. But this doesn’t explain why she withheld this information from Marlowe when she first commissioned the case. What possible reason could she have had for not just omitting this vital information, but actively misleading him? When asked in chapter one when she first realised he was missing she tells Marlowe “I telephoned him a number of times and got no answer, Then I called at his house. The milk hadn’t been cancelled and the newspapers had been piling up on his porch”. Why would she do that if she knew he had been “killed” in a hit and run. Even if this was after the subsequent sighting, why not tell Marlowe this. I suppose you could argue she was testing Marlowe’s powers as an investigator, but someone’s death in an unsolved hit and run would be a matter of public record. The fact that Peterson’s neighbour has not heard of his “death” is unconvincing as well – in reality news like that would be in the local paper and spread quickly.

The simple reason why she misleads Marlowe is so that the author can have this plot twist. And that’s not good enough – you can’t simply have characters behave illogically just to have dramatic chapter endings. In the same way the mexican thugs would not have kidnapped, tortured and killed Peterson’s sister, but left Marlowe alive to identify them. We much later learn that Clare Cavendish, the eponymous blonde, is unwittingly helping drug smugglers who want to track Peterson down, he having stolen some of their drugs. All the more reason why they would want Marlowe to have all the available information, not waste time finding out things they already know.

This is just not good enough. Chandler’s plotting was always complex and yes, sometimes a bit besides the point. He did weld together short stories, and knowing that you can sometimes see the join. (I defy anyone not knowing that to spot, for example, that the Big Sleep is two separate narratives shunted together). But his characters never behaved irrationally like this just to engineer a plot twist, or a “dah, dah, da!!” moment.

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