Channeling the Master


by Benjamin Black
Henry Holt & Company

Tampering with dead authors usually comes with a curse warning readers: stay away. There have been a few exceptions, most notably Joe Gores’ brilliantly executed prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese FalconSpade & Archer (Knopf, 2009).

Well now you can add The Black-Eyed Blonde to that short list of exceptions.

Benjamin Black—the nom de plume of Irish writer John Banville—brings Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe back to full-blooded life—complete with inner turmoil and honest, hard-boiled dialogue. This is not a pastiche, but the real deal, kicked up a notch with clever traces of irony. It’s tightly plotted, has its share of blunt violence and wise-cracks, as well as descriptions of L.A. that puncture the city’s elaborate façade.

Banville has been compared to Joyce, and this novel confirms the comparison. You’ll find memorable passages that demand to be read aloud. For example, here’s Marlowe behind the wheel, lost in thought:

I hadn’t known where I was headed until I got there. The air was fresh, after the rain, and had a melancholy fragrance. I had the car window down, enjoying the cool breeze on my face. I was thinking of Mandy Rogers, and of all the other kids like her who had come out here to the coast, drawn by the promise of one day getting to play opposite Doris and Rock in some mindless concoction of schmaltzy songs and mink coats and white telephones. There was bound to be a boy in Hope Springs who still pined for her. I could see him, clear as the rinsed light over the Hollywood Hills, a gawky fellow with hands like shovels and ears that stuck out. Did she ever think of him, there among the cornfields, pining for her? I felt sorry for him, even if she didn’t. I was in that frame of mind; it was that kind of hour, after the rain.

That poetic riff captures perfectly the melancholy soul of Philip Marlowe.

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