In “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” Booker Prize-winning author John Banville dons the hat of his crime-writing alter ego Benjamin Black, steps into the shoes of the late Raymond Chandler and escorts Chandler’s iconic character Philip Marlowe down a fresh set of mean streets. With such a proliferation of names, Banville/Black has drawn a loose dividing line between high art and simple entertainment, but channeling Chandler likely requires both sides of that split artistic personality. Reviving a character buried under so many imitations and parodies poses significant challenges and raises a question: how to inhabit Chandler’s sublimely treacherous style — that mix of the hard-boiled and the flowery, of soaring odes and blistering diatribes, of adolescent wisecracking, sudden empathy and existential wisdom, not to mention those similes that seem the cornerstone of every caricature of his writing?
From the start, “The Black-Eyed Blonde” stakes out familiar territory somewhere between the source material and the stereotype. Wealthy Clare Cavendish, the breathtakingly lovely title character, strolls her high heels into Marlowe’s office and hires him to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson. Marlowe quickly determines that Nico hasn’t just disappeared; he was killed in a car accident outside the prestigious Cahuilla Club. But rather than closing down mysteries, that revelation just opens more. When Clare protests that she glimpsed Nico on the street, Marlowe wonders what else his client has been hiding. And if Nico is alive, then who’s behind the elaborate death scene outside the club?
The cops tell Marlowe he’s wasting his time. Both the Cahuilla’s manager and Clare’s mother deliver warnings to steer clear. From the other direction, a gangster offers his own incentives for finding Nico. When a couple of tough-looking Mexicans show up, another corpse gets added to the pile. And running throughout is Marlowe’s nagging distrust of his own client, right alongside his growing attraction to her.
Along the way, Black seems uncertain whether he’s updating Marlowe or just adding a layer of shellac. Marlowe’s unsavory attitudes toward ethnic groups and homosexuals are smoothed away, but vaguely misogynistic attitudes remain. “Women are nothing but trouble, whatever you say, whatever you do” isn’t just a mantra, it’s a plot point. Black makes small moves toward giving the notoriously reticent Marlowe some backstory — brief reflections on “boyhood wanderings” and “youthful epiphanies” — but the memories add nothing ground-breaking. As for Chandler’s style, Black’s prose mimics the moves but never masters the texture — not even those similes. The best of Chandler’s figurative language brought surprising layers of meaning (as in his novella “Red Wind,” when a young woman’s face “fell like a bride’s piecrust,” conjuring images of love, hope, innocence and loss). But Black just tosses them in like frills: a grinning man “smug as a hen that’s just laid an egg” and a humid room that “smelled like a fat man after a long, hot bath.”
Such hollow parroting is evidently just what Black is after here. He sprinkles loose allusions to Chander’s work throughout — many being of the wink-and-nod variety (a ride down Chandler Boulevard prompts the line “Nice street, Chandler, nothing mean about it”) — but other references accumulate and take on an added significance: the dead man who may not be dead, a quick aside about a Silver Wraith, and those references to Mexico — elements familiar to readers of Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye”; odd encounters at the Cahuilla Club that resonate with Dr. Verringer’s art colony from that novel; and the jolting mention of Linda Loring from the same book. Devotees of Chandler will quickly recognize that this isn’t a revitalization or a rehashing but ultimately just a broad remix of a very specific story line. Lest we miss the author’s cleverness, Black has Marlowe conveniently remember a word he’d come across just recently: palimpsest, “a manuscript with the original text partly erased and a new one written over it.”
The problem here isn’t the occasional tone-deafness of the style, and it’s not Black’s wavering between staying true to Marlowe’s character and making those trifling gestures toward updating him. It’s the “So what?” factor. Why turn all this into an exercise in literary experimentation? The better text here is the one that’s been written over: Chandler’s elegiac masterpiece and one of the great works of all detective fiction. Black’s efforts add little of significance to our understanding of either that original book or the hero at its core. Instead, “The Black-Eyed Blonde” is all riffs and echoes and ultimately — to borrow another Chandlerism — as empty as a headwaiter’s smile.
Taylor, a professor at George Mason University, reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.
THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE
By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt. 290 pp. $27