Book Review: Noir novel dressed in Chandler

BOOK REVIEW

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEMarch 9, 2014 

  • ‘THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE: A PHILIP MARLOWE NOVEL’ by Benjamin Black; Henry Holt and Co. ($27)

Among the tentative book and story titles that Raymond Chandler left behind were “The Diary of a Loud Check Suit,” “The Man With the Shredded Ear,” “Stop Screaming — It’s Me” and “The Black-Eyed Blonde.” So we can be glad that last one became Chandler’s latest gift from beyond the grave: a much slinkier moniker that summons Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and the kinds of women who matched wits with him, slyly wrapping him around their dainty, lacquered fingers.

We can also be glad that the animator behind “The Black-Eyed Blonde” is Benjamin Black, who writes his tonier books as John Banville and his delectably noir ones under this pseudonym. Black’s Quirke series — which begins in Dublin when Elvis is popular and positively steams with hidden yearnings and glamorous femme fatale types — owes more than a little to Chandler as well.

The Quirke books’ language is more elegant and less brisk than Chandler’s, but the chance to write a Marlowe book opens up a new world of opportunity for Banville/Black. When else has he had reason or opportunity to use the phrase “the whole schlamozzle”? But here this esteemed Irish author is dropped into California in the early 1950s, when Doris Day and Rock Hudson are in movies with “schmaltzy songs and mink coats and white telephones,” pretending he has the lay of the land.

Considering that Black thanks California friends, most notably Candice Bergen, for filling him in on the book’s local color, he does an uncannily good job of filling Marlowe’s legendary gumshoes. It should be noted that Chandler himself was not especially fastidious about California geography anyway.

“The Black-Eyed Blonde” includes winks and nods to ardent Chandler fans, but the book will work as first-rate noir for anyone. Marlowe is parked in his office with nothing interesting to do when the fabulous creature of the title appears, her eyes “black and deep as a mountain lake, the lids exquisitely tapered at their outer corners.”

He will go on to describe those eyes as frequently and voluptuously as possible, but, for now, he mostly registers that this raving beauty, Mrs. Clare Cavendish, has a job for him. “Obviously the god of Tuesday afternoons had decided I needed a little lift,” Marlowe observes.

It’s remarkable how fresh this book feels while still hewing close to the material on which it’s based. The ill-fated Robert B. Parker experiment with Marlowe, “Poodle Springs,” did entrust the Chandler legacy to a pro, but not the right one. Now to find a writer whose affinity for the genre has been so well established? And who seemed to be channeling Chandler even before he was asked to, while still maintaining a very identifiable, charismatic voice of his own? It’s almost too good to be true.

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