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Well boiled: Philip Marlowe’s long hello again


The 23rd novel by the Irish writer John Banville feels like the literary equivalent of Winston Churchill's description of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". The Black-Eyed Blonde represents a literary brand name wrapped in a pseudonym inside a Man Booker prizewinner.

Although this is Banville’s attempt at a novel in the style of the Philip Marlowe series by Raymond Chandler, he has chosen to publish it under the name of Benjamin Black, the identity he has adopted for a series of crime novels (including Christine Falls and Holy Orders) featuring Quirke, an Irish pathologist in the 1950s.

Black-Banville remains in the same decade for this Marlowe makeover, which finds the private eye living in the rented residence on Yucca Avenue in Los Angeles that he occupied in the final Chandler books. The Long Good-bye and Playback were set in the early fifties and charted Marlowe’s attraction to and eventual marriage proposal from the heiress Linda Loring.

As Black-Banville's Marlowe expresses the hope of one day marrying Loring, The Black-Eyed Blonde seems to sit between the last two completed Chandlers and Poodle Springs, the final, unfinished Marlowe novel, which Robert B Parker finished in a previous authorised continuation, commissioned by the Chandler estate to mark the author’s centenary.

The plot follows the master’s hand. On a listless LA day, a beautiful young woman turns up in the personal investigator’s office. She is Mrs Clare Cavendish, heiress to a perfume fortune built by an Irish immigrant family, the Langrishes. For tantalisingly unclear reasons, Mrs C has hired Marlowe to find a former lover, Nico Peterson, who has disappeared.

The private eye soon learns that Peterson has been killed and cremated, although this information becomes increasingly questionable as the investigator follows the trail deeper into the scent company.

The reputation of the original novels rests largely on the tone of the prose and the character of Marlowe. As the books are narrated in the first person, these are closely linked, so any Chandler stand-in must convincingly carry on both.

But a popular perception has developed that Chandler's style consisted entirely of witty metaphors and witticisms stitched together. In fact, between the anthologised one-liners, the language is often looser and more discursive, but so strong is the legend of Chandler's high style that any pretenders will be judged on how successfully they achieve it.

The Irish understudy takes on Chandler's habits convincingly. The Marlowe books have a paradoxical tone of energetic weariness, which this imitation echoes in many lines. Visiting a witness, the detective reports that he "lowered himself into one of the armchairs. It was so deep my knees nearly gave me an uppercut." Painted roses on a bedside lamp throw shadows that look like "bloodstains someone had started to wash away and then given up on".

The biggest decision for any literary ventriloquist is to what extent simply to transplant the central character, or, just as importantly, any of the actors who have played the role on screen. Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum are probably the Connery and Craig of the Marlowe adaptations and the protagonist of The Black-Eyed Blonde is easy to visualise as an older Bogart.

Black-Banville's Marlowe has begun to worry about the medical effects of all the drinking and smoking, but is otherwise recognisably the figure of the originals: chess-playing, introspective, sensitive, self-hating. "Women are not the only thing I don’t understand – I don’t understand myself either, not one little bit."

What Banville brings to Chandler is perhaps an enhanced literary sensibility. His Marlowe is alert to nuances of language, delighted when the name of Mrs Langrishe is accidentally recorded in a message as "Mrs Languish", and thrilled when an interrogatee uses the word "milksop", which he has previously only ever seen written down.

Banville was once cast as the epitome of serious, prizewinning literary fiction, but the subsequent decade seems to have unleashed a pleasure in plot and playfulness that wasn’t evident before. Even while routinely trashing crime novels, in interviews and at festivals, as "cheap", he has published them at the rate of almost one a year and now seems to have concluded that he would rather add to his shelf a Black-Chandler rather than a Black or a Banville.

The genre of new books by dead writers is a curious and questionable one, but Banville and his crime-writing pseudonym have played the game as well as anyone could. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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