My wife and I recently moved to Los Angeles. To prepare, I reread a handful of the Philip Marlowe novels by the great Raymond Chandler, from The Big Sleep to The Little Sister. Chandler, who died in 1959, was a forefather of the modern detective novel. I've been a Chandler fan for years, but I also wanted to reread him because I knew I'd be reviewing a new Chandler book — written by somebody else.
As Marlowe himself says in Chandler's 1953 novel The Long Goodbye, "there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself." Let's just say I was ready to be disappointed. Instead, I've just finished The Black-Eyed Blonde, and I'm wondering how on Earth it rings so true. For Chandler fans — for fans of detective fiction, in general — it's a treat.
The main reason is the author, Benjamin Black. Black's the writer behind the bestselling Quirke thrillers, about a grouchy pathologist in 1950s Dublin. Black also happens to be the pen name of the Irish novelist John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2005 book, The Sea. As a novelist, Banville's known for his distinctive voice. As a crime writer, Black is credited for his subtle mysteries. In The Black-Eyed Blonde, we get both.
The story picks up from the end of The Long Goodbye. The setup is typical Chandlerian: a beautiful woman needs help finding a missing boyfriend, and Marlowe's just the sucker to help. The trouble is, the man's not just gone astray. He died in a car accident two months before our story starts. Yet our client recently spotted him walking down the street. From there, we're in and out of L.A. country clubs, taverns, and fist-fights as Marlowe tries to figure out what's really going on.
Half the pleasure of this book, at least for a Chandler fan, is to notice Black getting the little things right. Marlowe is always fast with a joke, but reluctant with his gun. He drinks too much, he's restless. And Los Angeles is captured precisely — its morning blues, its evening breezes. Line after line of dialogue sound accurate for Marlowe, without seeming too much like pastiche. "Sometimes," he says, "I think I should lay off cigarettes for good, but if I did that, I'd have no hobbies except chess, and I keep beating myself at chess."
Unfortunately, the book is still a bit of a let-down. Black's characters don't feel lived-in. The intrigue lacks wrinkles, and the mystery proceeds too smoothly — it doesn't have enough dead ends. Chandler was a master of the frustrating moments in police work, when time stands still and the southern California sun beats down on Marlowe's neck. But against a dozen other detective novels on my desk, I'll take a Raymond Chandler any day of the week, even when it's written by somebody else — assuming that somebody is Benjamin Black.