In 1932, when Raymond Chandler increasingly found that he couldn’t be bothered to log reliable hours at his gig in the oil business—especially insofar as it tended to interfere with his drinking habit—and consequently got bounced out of the industry, he elected, in lieu of holing up in another office, to create a detective novel series featuring a character named Philip Marlowe, a series that ranks among the most famous literary enterprises in the history of crime fiction. Novel writing is a solitary exercise—with the exception that practitioners sometimes seek input from friends or editors while in the course of producing a publishable manuscript—and Marlowe was certainly Chandler’s baby.
Now that the author is dead, a reasonable case can be made that his series should be left alone, allowed to stand on the merits. I tend to err on the side of keeping an open mind about adding to the series, however, if a sufficiently gifted writer comes along with a willingness to take on the role, not entirely unlike the instance when a new generation of actors gives voice to Shakespeare’s Falstaff—while conceding that a novelist has a bigger burden to invent. A first-person narrator such as Marlowe, in any case, serving as the only speaker in any of Chandler’s novels unless other characters are quoted in dialogue, might be particularly accessible to an inspired writer with an inclination to walk on stage.
In the newly published The Black-Eyed Blonde, then, Benjamin Black has played the role of Philip Marlowe with a level of style and brio that honors the original. It might be worth mentioning that the success of this book is not much of a surprise, since Benjamin Black, pen name of John Banville, who’s the author of numerous top shelf works including the remarkable The Untouchable, has never exactly been at a loss to imagine great scenes and set them down in figurative language from a compellingly off-center vantage point.
The Marlowe of The Black-Eyed Blonde is every bit as sardonic and melancholy as he was in Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Here is a character capable of making you sit up straight and pay attention when he describes the seedy world that he inhabits. A stray cat is properly something more than that in Black’s new Marlowe novel, not merely a moth-eaten Siamese, but “an Egyptian princess” or “Pharaoh’s daughter,” waiting outside the gumshoe’s door with a corpse of a bird.
After reading this excellent novel, I’ve about halfway talked myself into suggesting that, henceforth, a simplified Marlowe timeline might go something like this:
- Starting in 1932, Chandler sets about creating a detective series featuring the moody
Philip Marlowe, but only after ceasing to pretend that sobriety is an option at his day job.
- Bogart and Lauren Bacall star in the movie version of The Big Sleep.
- Chandler pens several more Marlowe novels, including a virtuoso performance in
The Long Goodbye.
- In 2014, Benjamin Black takes the stage to triumphantly play Marlowe in The Black-Eyed Blonde.