Page Turners

The Black-Eyed Blonde is a Decent Knock-Off

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One of my favorite characters of all time is Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe. I haven’t really talked about Marlowe here on the site, mainly because I haven’t re-read one of the novels anytime soon, but I think by now I’ve made it clear that I’m a huge fan of noir in general. The hardboiled noir detective is maybe my favorite character archetypes in media, and while there’s a whole slew of great character to choose from, Marlowe will always be my favorite. I know that people really adore Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, or maybe even some of the televised characters like Jim Rockford, but no one will ever beat Philip Marlowe for me. And it absolutely blows my mind that we haven’t had any Marlowe adaptations in years. There hasn’t been a movie since the late 70’s, and while he’s popped around in television as recently as the 80’s and that is so utterly shocking. However, it seems like they’re planning on turning that around, because it was recently announced that Liam Neeson has signed on to play Marlowe in an adaptation of one of the novels. But not one of the Chandler novels. I’m not quite sure how I never heard about this novel, what with it being out since 2014, but apparently a crime-fiction writer named John Banville, under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, was allowed to write a new Philip Marlowe novel from the Raymond Chandler estate. And once I learned that there was a Marlowe novel out there that I hadn’t consumed, I knew that I had to give it a chance.

The novel picks up a bit after the final Chandler novel, Playback, (let’s not get into the complicated history of Poodle Springs) with Philip Marlowe struggling to get by, looking for a new case. And, as is the fashion, things start to move along when he’s approached by a woman named Claire Cavendish, a beautiful woman with blonde hair and black eyes. She’s asking Marlowe to investigate the disappearance of a friend of hers named Nico Peterson. It seems pretty simple and straight-forward case, until Marlowe quickly learns that Peterson died recently in a pretty brutal car-crash. But, as usual, things aren’t as they seem, because when Marlowe comes to tell Claire that, he learns that she was aware of the car-crash, but also happened to see him alive in San Francisco just the other day. And from there, things get more and more confusing.

Marlowe is thrown right into the mystery of Peterson’s disappearance and faked death, and ends up being dragged all around the city, meeting people at the top of society, and people at the bottom. Pretty standard detective stuff. He gets involved with Mexican drug cartel assassins, Claire’s millionaire mother, her drunken husband, a criminal organization operating out of a ritzy country club, and after coming across several murders he ends up getting involved with a lot of angry police. And it all boils down to why Nico Peterson vanished, why he faked his death, and why Clare Cavendish cares so much. And along the way, Marlowe ends up really falling for Claire, and getting much too close to her and the Cavendish family. Yet, as usual, Marlowe saves the day, solves the case, and ends up exactly where he was in the beginning of the novel.

This is a very quintessential Philip Marlowe story. It has all of the hallmarks of a Chandler novel, puts Marlowe through the usual ringers, and is written in a slavishly similar voice as Chandler. But it didn’t quite do it for me. I still enjoyed this novel, and if it had been about someone other than Philip Marlowe I may have loved it, but as it stands I can’t help feeling like this novel reeks of being a decent knock-off. And I think there’s two major causes for that. First, there’s the fact that the writing in this novel is trying to very hard to mimic Chandler. It does a decent job, but the entire time I was reading the novel I felt like Banville was trying so hard to do what Chandler did effortlessly. The writing occasionally reached a point of parody, straining so hard to be as hardboiled as one of the classic novels, and every time it tried too hard I was completely taken out of the story. But the second, and bigger, issue I had with the novel was the fact that it was oddly obsessed with continuity. The classic Chandler novels were all very self-contained, and didn’t often feature recurring characters. That changed a bit near the end, with The Long Goodbye  and Playback kind of working in tandem, but by and large you could read the Marlowe novels completely out of order and lose nothing. But this novel is obsessed with continuity. Characters and references from other books pop up all the time, and a significant portion of the novel falls directly from The Long Goodbye, to the point where you kind of need to have read that novel to know what’s even going on in parts. And while this made it occasionally satisfying being a huge Marlowe fan, it also just felt utterly un-Marlowe. There were a lot of things about this novel that worked beautifully for me, but enough that fell flat that I couldn’t quite bring myself to love it. It’ll scratch your Marlowe itch, but you’ll end up feeling pretty unsatisfied.

The Black-Eyed Blonde was written by John Banville, 2014.

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