As I wrote last week, I love to read great mysteries, in part for the language. One of my favorites is Raymond Chandler, author of the iconic Philip Marlowe novels.
Raymond Chandler isn’t just influential. To writers, he’s a god. Every modern antihero, from Harry Callahan to Travis Bickle to John McClane to Jack Reacher, has a bunch of Chandler DNA in there. In the periodic table of modern American fiction, if Hemingway and Steinbeck are oxygen and hydrogen, Chandler is carbon.
Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is the original, essential, complicated, hard-boiled, self-reflective, world-wise and world-weary, underpaid and brokenhearted private eye. In The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and the other Chandler classics, Marlowe’s noir world is peopled with dangerous dames, hard-nosed cops, and wretched villains, and woven together with a poetry stitched of snappy dialogue and florid metaphors.
When Marlowe is about to leave his office to pursue a case, he doesn’t say, “Time to go to work,” or, “So I split,” or even, “I knew what had to be done.” He says:
“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”
One of his novels opens with Marlowe sitting in his office on a summer morning, his attention focused on a fly buzzing around his desk.
“I had been stalking the bluebottle fly for five minutes, waiting for him to sit down. He didn’t want to sit down. He just wanted to do wing-overs and sing the prologue to Pagliacci. I had the fly swatter poised in midair and I was all set. There was a patch of bright sunlight on the corner of the desk and I knew that sooner or later that was where he was going to light. But when he did, I didn’t even see him at first. The buzzing stopped and there he was. And then the phone rang.”
Marlowe quietly lifts the handset and says, “Hold the line a moment, please.” Then…
“I laid the phone down gently on the brown blotter. He was still there, shining and blue-green and full of sin. I took a deep breath and swung. What was left of him sailed halfway across the room and dropped to the carpet. I went over and picked him up by his good wing and dropped him into the wastebasket.”
Which is pretty much how Marlowe’s going to feel himself, when this particular adventure is over.
I mean, what kind of writer starts a private eye story that way?
The kind I’d be thrilled to emulate.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Chandler was evidently enamored with blondes. But while Hitchcock described women with his innovative camera lens, Chandler used words. When Marlowe catches his first glimpse of one woman (who will soon prove to be trouble) he doesn’t just describe her as “gorgeous” or “beautiful” or even “stunning.” He describes her as:
“…a blonde that would make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
And so it should have come as no big surprise when the new Marlowe mystery that appeared a few years ago had a blonde in the title. The Black-Eyed Blonde.
Only here’s the thing: Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler, has been dead for more than half a century. Which made this book not just a story about a mystery, but something wonderfully mysterious in itself.
This Marlowe, you see, was written not by Chandler but by Benjamin Black, who is not dead at all. Black is the author of the hugely popular Irish noir series about Quirke, a troubled poetic alcoholic soul who works as a post-mortem pathologist and moonlights as an accidental detective.
Only here’s the other thing: while Benjamin Black is not dead … he’s not alive, either. At least, not in the strictest sense. Benjamin Black is himself an invention.
Benjamin Black is the creation of an award-winning literary novelist named John Banville. “Literary” meaning “serious,” that is, non-pulp-fiction-writing. Except a few years earlier, on a whim, Banville decided to try his hand at writing crime fiction and turned out to love it. Then he wrote five more. Then he got invited by the Raymond Chandler estate to pick up Chandler’s quill and make Marlowe come alive again.
So: it’s John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, writing as Raymond Chandler.
…the dude that’s playin the dude disguised as another dude.
An Irishman, a serious literary novelist, trying to speak in the voice of a wise-cracking Los Angeles gumshoe from the 1950s? You’d think this couldn’t possibly work. You wouldn’t think this could possibly be that good.
Reading The Black-Eyed Blonde is like reading Chandler going down the Pacific Highway at 80 mph. With the top down. Piled on top of the ordinary joys of the rich language, the wonderful characters, the delicious ironies and poignancies and tragedies and poetries of the classic Marlowe fabric, there’s this sense of the sheer palpable exuberance it must be to be Banville channeling Black channeling Chandler.
In some ways Black (Banville) out-Chandlers Chandler, taking the wry philosophical observations and self-reflections even further than the master ever did. For example:
“I suddenly wanted very much to kiss her. I couldn’t think why that was, I mean why I wanted to kiss her now, while she was so far from me, thinking of someone she loved. Women are not the only thing I don’t understand—I don’t understand myself, either, not one little bit.”
Talk about not resting on one’s laurels.
Talk about taking on an impossibly daunting challenge and acing it.
Talk about being an inspirational example of daring boldly.
Chandler himself once wrote:
“A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.”
Banville was not afraid to overreach. I’m going to remember that.
(Photo of Sir John Banville as Benjamin Black by Barry McCaill)