Raymond Chandler is among our most stylized writers, an innovator of what we might call high noir, with its cut-glass imagery, its cynical world-weariness (although never ennui). Such a posture defines him — or, more accurately, his detective, Philip Marlowe — as a wise-cracker with repartee as sharp as a fedora's brim.
And yet, the more I read (and re-read) Chandler, the more I appreciate his vision of Los Angeles, the "big angry city" he described as "no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness" in his 1953 novel "The Long Goodbye."
This issue of place, it turns out, is one of the challenges faced by Benjamin Black's "The Black-Eyed Blonde," a new Marlowe book written under the auspices of Chandler's estate. Black is the pseudonym of Man Booker-winning author John Banville, who since 2007 has published a series of crime novels that take place in Dublin, where he lives. As he admits in the acknowledgments, Southern California is a less familiar territory, and one it appears he had no particular inclination to learn.
"In all the Marlowe novels," Black notes, "his creator played fast and loose with the topography of Southern California, and I have duly allowed myself the same license. Yet there were many details that had to be accurate and of which I was unsure." The solution? To rely "heavily on advice from a quintet of informants who know the area intimately" — in other words, to outsource the legwork, which renders the Los Angeles of this novel inherently secondhand.
The same might be said about much of "The Black-Eyed Blonde," which unfolds in the early 1950s, shortly after "The Long Goodbye." In many ways, it seems a sequel of sorts, with Marlowe still under the sway of Linda Loring, living in Laurel Canyon, facing unfinished business from his past.
Black opens the book with a classic trope: the detective in his office, attending to an heiress named Clare Cavendish (the black-eyed blonde of the title) who wants him to find Nico Peterson, a lover who has disappeared. Marlowe takes the case, but it is Clare who interests him, her "candid eyes and the amused, knowing light that shone in them."
That this is all a ruse — a MacGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock's word — goes without saying; it's one of the conventions of the form. "Something didn't add up," Marlowe reflects. "As a private eye I'm not completely unknown, but why would a daughter of Dorothea Langrishe of Ocean Heights and who knew how many other swell spots choose me to find her missing man?"
To answer that question, Black takes Marlowe through a series of set pieces intended to echo Chandler's work. A pair of scenes in Peterson's abandoned West Hollywood home recalls Arthur Geiger's bungalow in "The Big Sleep"; there are references to Rusty Regan and Terry Lennox, two other tough guys on the lam, and D.A.'s investigator Bernie Ohls. Still, if this is meant to make the landscape of the novel familiar, it ultimately comes off as artificial, items on a checklist and little more.
That becomes most glaring when Black turns to the city: "I got up from my desk and took my pipe to the window and stood looking out at nothing in particular. In an office across the street, a secretary in a tartan blouse and wearing earphones from a Dictaphone machine was bent over her typewriter, tapping away. I had passed her in the street a few times. Nice little face, shy smile; the kind of girl who lives with her mother and cooks meat loaf for Sunday lunch. This is a lonely town." It's a pleasant pastiche, although it doesn't earn its closing line — but it can't compare to the depth, the nuance, of the real thing.
"When I got home," Chandler writes in "The Long Goodbye," "I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. … Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs."
If it seems unfair to hold "The Black-Eyed Blonde" to such a standard, it's a standard the book demands. Why take on the territory of Chandler when Chandler was so perfectly himself? "The Black-Eyed Blonde" is a competent enough little mystery; the missing persons case leads to murder and betrayal, and the privileged are revealed to be corrupted, as we knew they were.
But that's the thing about Chandler — the mystery was never quite the point.
In "The Simple Art of Murder," he lays out his aesthetic: "It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it." What he's describing is a moral landscape, which in the end has everything to do with place.
Chandler's true stylistic brilliance is that out of his experience of Los Angeles, he built a world both heightened and authentic; "down these mean streets," he tells us, "a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." That's the key to Marlowe, his relationship to these streets, and the failure of this novel is that it never pierces its own surfaces to evoke the city underneath.
The Black-Eyed Blonde
A Philip Marlowe Novel
Henry Holt: 304 pp., $27