|THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE
Benjamin Black (www.benjaminblackbooks.com)
It seems like a straightforward case: Nico Peterson, the boyfriend of Philip Marlowe’s married client, has disappeared. It’s a scenario Marlowe has investigated often and it usually means the boyfriend has wanted to end the affair and decided disappearing might be an easier option than going through the process of ending it. So Marlowe takes the case, mainly because he can’t bear the thought of Clare Cavendish walking out of his office and never seeing her again. But as he investigates, things don’t quite add up. For one thing, Nico Peterson is dead and buried. For another, something isn’t quite right about Clare Cavendish’s story. Throw in a pair of Mexican heavies, one of L.A.’s top gangsters and a country club that seems to be a front for something less than legal, and Marlowe is up to his hat-brim in trouble. And he hasn’t even been paid for the job.
Once upon a long time ago, at the tender age of about fifteen, I discovered the novels of Raymond Chandler. Immediately entranced, I immersed myself in the L.A. of the mid-twentieth century in the company of one of the most iconic and entertaining characters in crime fiction. I loved every word, but have never gone back to the books since: Poodle Springs, of which Chandler wrote the first few chapters and which was finished by another crime fiction stalwart, Robert B. Parker, left a bad taste in my mouth. When I heard that Marlowe was once again being resurrected, I was less than thrilled by the idea and will freely admit that I stepped into Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde fully expecting to hate it from page one.
In the time-honoured tradition of Chandler’s novels, and the thousands of copycat private eyes that came after, we find ourselves in the head of the wise-cracking Philip Marlowe as he meets his client. Black – the open pseudonym of Irish Booker winner John Banville – has done his homework, and has obviously spent many hours in the company of Chandler’s prose and his most famous creation. Marlowe’s voice is spot on, the atmosphere perfect, the language almost indistinguishable from that used in the original series of novels. Marlowe has a way with words that, while not always eloquent, gets his point across perfectly to the reader, as when describing his client early in the novel.
That smile: it was like something she had set a match to a long time ago and then left to smolder on by itself. She had a lovely upper lip, prominent, like a baby’s, soft-looking and a little swollen, as if she had done a lot of kissing recently, and not kissing babies, either.
The Black-Eyed Blonde follows on from Chandler’s sixth Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye and references some of the events and characters from that novel. Cavendish, it turns out, has been recommended to Marlowe by Linda Loring, a woman that Chandler met during the events of The Long Goodbye and who he would later (heaven forfend) marry. That said, it’s not necessary to have read that earlier novel (or, for that matter, any of Chandler’s oeuvre) to enjoy Black’s addition to the series but, as with all these things, prior knowledge brings increased enjoyment.
Like many of Marlowe’s cases, this one soon becomes convoluted and our private eye hero finds himself on the end of more than one beating and more often the suspect in police investigations than the criminals with whom he consorts. Black has populated the story with a mix of old friends and enemies, and new characters alike. There’s even an Irish connection, in the guise of Ma Langrishe, Clare Cavendish’s mother, a woman sharp of both wit and tongue. But the star is, as you’d fully expect, Marlowe himself. It’s been a long time since he has had an outing, but Black manages to make him as fresh and interesting as ever, part detective, part philosopher, the fount of wit and wisdom that long-term fans have come to know and love. And for readers like me, who haven’t visited in a while, there are reminders of the little tics and tricks that Marlowe employs when dealing with people.
I nodded – sagely, I hoped – then took up my pipe and did some business with it, tamping the dottle, and so on. A tobacco pipe is a very handy prop, when you want to seem thoughtful and wise.
In all, it’s a satisfying addition to the Marlowe canon and Banville/Black has proved he is a more-than-capable successor to Chandler. There is one unfortunate passage close to the end of the novel in which he all-but-telegraphs the mystery’s outcome, but it’s a forgivable sin given what he has accomplished. I’m a convert; I’ve gone from wanting to hate this novel to wanting everyone to read it, and I would love to see Marlowe return yet again under the control of Mr Black.
With the classic mix of wit and violence that we’ve come to expect from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, Benjamin Black takes us back to 1950s Los Angeles to catch up with a man being hailed as "the world’s greatest private investigator" and, for many, an old friend. More than just a pastiche, The Black-Eyed Blonde reintroduces Marlowe to a modern audience with a degree of success that I don’t think anyone could have predicted. Where Black succeeds admirably is in making me want to go back and re-read those novels I first discovered almost twenty-five years ago. I suspect people new to Marlowe will feel the same. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that we now live in a world where Poodle Springs never happened or, at the very least, hasn’t happened yet. That can’t be a bad thing. Whether a long term fan or a relative newcomer, The Black-Eyed Blonde is the perfect place to get (re)acquainted with Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.