Monday, April 07, 2014

Death Is Not the End

(Editor’s note: Following the release last month of Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, a novel starring Raymond Chandler’s most famous private investigator, Philip Marlowe, Kevin Burton Smith -- a sometime contributor to January and The Rap Sheet, and the editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site -- sat down to make a close examination of that novel, looking to see how it compared with vintage Chandler. His thoughts appear in the essay below, which appeared originally on his own site.)

And the latest dead author spinning in his grave? Raymond Chandler. In the last few years, we've been subjected to an orgy of literary reincarnation, as beloved detective characters created by equally beloved authors who are long dead, recently dead or nearly dead, are exhumed and once again forced to go through their paces.

Spenser, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Sid Halley, Sam Spade and Jesse Stone have all been resurrected lately (or will be shortly) with varying degrees of success. In a few instances, the results have been honorable and respectful -- sincere and heartfelt tributes and debts repaid by current authors to their own personal literary heroes.

But most cases seem to be more about, or even exclusively about, the bottom line: grab a hired pen, squeeze out a book with the deceased author’s name and their character in extra-large type featured prominently on the cover, slip in a more discreet byline for the actual writer, and turn a quick buck while the franchise still has name value. It’s a formula the always commercially savvy (and still living) James Patterson has milked well in the last decade or so; when/if he eventually kicks the bucket, his literary output won’t significantly suffer.

Nor is the phenomenon limited to private detective fiction, or even crime fiction. Science fiction and fantasy series have gone on long after the original creators have shuffled off this mortal coil (read #447 in the Dune trilogy yet?), and lately we’ve seen P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Bertie put through their paces again by Sebastian Faulks (who also resurrected Ian Fleming’s James Bond a few years ago). Hell, even the Bible has been brought back new and improved, this time presumptuously sporting the byline of a couple of holier-than-thou TV producers.

In an era when attention spans are measured in 140 characters (or fewer), it seems that name recognition -- and the bottom line -- may be all that matters. The actual writing? What are you, a commie?

Plus, someone’s widow may need new kitchen curtains.

* * *

The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black, which digs up Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, at least eschews the typographical sleight of hand -- Chandler’s name appears nowhere on the front cover.

But it’s not hard to predict how Chandler would feel about this latest desecration. The Anglophile with the literary ambitions might be momentarily pleased that Booker Prize-winner John Banville had tackled Philip Marlowe (Chandler had almost as high an opinion of himself as we did), but the eternally grumpy and fault-finding author -- once he realized he himself wasn't even mentioned on the cover -- would no doubt still have found the effort wanting, as indeed he felt about most things in life. And I tend to agree with Ray.

Twenty-five or so years ago, to mark what would have been the 100th anniversary of Chandler’s birth in 1888, there were a couple of major projects released: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration, a collection of original short-stories featuring Marlowe produced by some of the most-celebrated P.I. writers (and unabashed Chandler fans) of the time; and, more controversially, the novel-length completion of Chandler’s Poodle Springs, by Robert B. Parker, the creator of Spenser, who attempted to do what even Chandler had given up on: marrying off Marlowe. It was probably a lose/lose situation. Even had Chandler himself completed it, fans would have screamed bloody murder, but I always felt Parker did pretty well with the cards he’d been dealt. And at the time, who would have been better suited than Parker to write about a private eye in a long-term romantic relationship? Plus there’s no doubt that Parker, like the authors featured in the short-story collection, were the true literary descendants of Chandler. Affection and a sense of respect permeated both projects, and while nobody aspired to ape Chandler outright, the influence was obvious.

And because everyone’s heart seemed in the right place, those books felt “special.”

All of which brings us to The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black (the name Banville uses for what he calls -- with a wink -- his “cheap fiction”), which doesn’t feel particularly “special.”

Oh, it’s not the quickie rip-off it might have been, but neither does it seem like much of a literary valentine. Nothing in Black’s acclaimed series of six books about Irish pathologist Quirke recalls Chandler, except perhaps for a sense of brooding loneliness and the 1950s setting. But is that enough?

For those looking for a “Chandleresque” period-piece pastiche -- or just a good old ’50s-era detective yarn of the kind that “they just don’t write anymore” -- this may suffice. Most of the tropes one would expect to see in such a tale are here: sleazy rich people, femmes fatales, sexual treachery, colorful thugs and a tarnished knight going down those mean streets looking for a dragon or two to slay.

But after 60 years or so, should there be more? Chandler contemporaries such as Howard Browne, Dolores Hitchens and Leigh Brackett, and even Ariel S. Winter, in his wonderful The Twenty-Year Death from a few years ago, have already pretty much claimed that turf, creating their own Marlowe-like characters but putting their own spin on him, imitation perhaps being a more sincere form of flattery than impersonation.

Black, though, isn’t offering us a Marlowe-like character. He’s serving up Marlowe himself, one of the most analyzed, studied and debated characters of the genre; the Hamlet of detective fiction, created by one of the most instantly recognizable stylists crime fiction has ever produced.

And the results are, well, mixed. At times The Black-Eyed Blonde is crippled by an almost slavish attempt at impersonation, injecting far more Chandleresque wisecracks and similes into the mix than the surgeon general would recommend, and Black’s insistence on weaving in as many shout-outs as possible to Chandler’s other Marlowe novels (particularly 1953’s The Long Goodbye), something Chandler rarely did, grates more than gratifies. We hear all about Bernie Ohls and Linda Loring and Terry Lennox far more often than we really need.

We get it, we get it. We’re supposed to think we’re reading Chandler.

But we’re not.

* * *

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the story.

Black’s a better plotter than Chandler was, but nobody really read Chandler for the plots, anyway. Or at least the plots alone. And the plot of The Black-Eyed Blonde, while engaging, seems both too familiar and, worse, too obvious. The Irish author drops clues all about the place, as though he were being paid by the pound.

And while Black works hard at nailing the voice, he plays a little loose with Marlowe as a man. Although he loosened up a bit in later novels, Marlowe was still something of an old-fashioned guy when it came to ideas about romance and sex. As Chandler once famously stated about his ideal of the detective hero, he might “seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin.”

I’m pretty sure that Marlowe would not have his head turned so easily (or quickly) by his rich and seductive (and married) new client, Clare Cavendish, the young black-eyed blonde of this new book’s title. Especially when it becomes clear that he’s still carrying a torch for the lovely and willing Linda Loring, who desperately wants to marry him. And particularly when he discovers that Linda and Clare are close friends. How is that going to work out? Marlowe as a perpetually horny schoolboy unable to control his own libido -- read it here first.

After almost two decades in the shamus game at the time this book takes place, wouldn’t Marlowe have smelled something fishy? Certainly fans who’ve been reading this sort of book for 60 years or more certainly would.

Almost from the start, when she waltzes into Marlowe’s office, asking him to find Nico Peterson, the man she claims she had an affair with, we know Clare’s going to be trouble.

The plot tumbles along, and we get to meet some interesting characters: eccentric rich people, colorful thugs, hard-bitten cops and sinister men and women with too many secrets and too few scruples. We soon discover everyone thinks Nico is dead, the victim of a hit-and-run incident, a detail Clare didn’t think worth mentioning at first. But by then Marlowe’s already besotted. He continues working the case, and as the lies and betrayals pile up, I began wishing Black wasn’t trying so damn hard to be Chandler.

In fact, my admiration for Chandler was probably the reason I couldn’t let myself just be carried away by the story. It’s the many “Hey! Look at me!” instances where Black falls short that weigh this novel down. He didn’t take a loose thread Chandler left dangling and run with it, as Parker did; nor did he use a Chandler-like character to tell his own story. No, he’s purporting to be Chandler.

(Right) Raymond Chandler

The real Raymond Chandler was notorious for his sometimes sloppy treatment of Los Angeles, playing fast and loose with place names and street locations. Black has no such problem; he eagerly shows off his research. (Marlowe at one point makes a pointless aside about Chandler Boulevard -- no relation -- that’s too cute by half.) Black’s penchant for period-perfect celebrity name-dropping (Errol Flynn, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.) is something else Chandler never shared. When Chandler bothered to take a shot at a well-known target, it was more subtle; a poke at a cop named Hemingway, not the writer himself.

Chandler fudged the details and made the City of Angels come vibrantly alive; Black nails down the details but turns it into a vacation slideshow.

And this novel’s ending seems too bleak, too cynical for later-period Chandler, which this is clearly meant to be.

The real failure here, though, is the lack of (for a better word) romance. Even at his most angry and cynical, Marlowe was a believer. Beyond anything else, there is no echo in this book of romance or beauty; no reverberation of the battered and bruised but defiant ideals that Marlowe clung to throughout Chandler’s work. Yes, he loves Linda, but hoo-boy, let’s forget all that. That black-eyed blonde is a hottie.

In the noirish conclusion of The Big Sleep (1939), Marlowe muses on how far he’s fallen from his ideals, and how he was now “part of the nastiness.” The Black-Eyed Blonde doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that fall.

It would be too easy to simply dismiss The Black-Eyed Blonde as lacking, then, that “music heard faintly around the edge of the sound” (as Chandler described love). But without those ideals, however bruised and tattered they may be, Marlowe seems curiously and disappointingly hollow. Yet, from reading some of his Quirke books it’s clear to me that Black/Banville knows the melody well; it’s just that, unlike Chandler (or Parker), he seems to be having trouble with the words.

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