Book review

'The Black-Eyed Blonde' borrows Philip Marlowe from Raymond Chandler

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Benjamin Black is the mystery-writing pseudonym for the Irish writer John Banville, author of 18 novels and winner of the Man Booker Prize. Mr. Banville has also written plays and screenplays. As Benjamin Black he’s given us seven previous mysteries, most featuring his surly pathologist, Quirke, as protagonist.

By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt ($27)

The Quirke series is set in 1950s Dublin. And now for his eighth mystery, he’s been tapped to channel the great Raymond Chandler. His new novel, “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” features Philip Marlowe and is steeped in the Americana of more than half a century ago.

Mr. Black has come up with a novel Chandler only had a title for — presumably something he intended to write one day. If you love the noir plots of the ’40s and ’50s and have found yourself muttering, “Why don’t they write them like that anymore?” you will be thrilled by the likeness in “The Black-Eyed Blonde” to what used to be.

The novel begins with a gorgeous woman coming to Philip Marlowe’s office. “The hat she wore had a veil, a dainty visor of spotted black silk that stopped at the tip of her nose . . .”

This is Clare Cavendish. She asks him to find her missing lover.

She has lots of money; perhaps that’s why she forgets to pay him. But he’s swacked, so swacked that he doesn’t notice the holes in her story, that first day and after. There are weapons and beatings and mickey fins in Marlowe’s life. He isn’t quick to swing a fist or to shoot, so he takes quite a few hits himself.

It’s easy to imagine a refreshed and digitized Humphrey Bogart holding a towel to his split face, quivering from concussion and drink. So, what was old is new and vice versa.

For the first hundred pages, Marlowe doesn’t exactly pursue a logical inquiry. If he did, he would get to the end of the case too quickly. Instead we get to enjoy his daily existence — the restaurants and clubs and bars and the police for whom he is enemy and friend.

He’s still a staunchly old-fashioned guy: He favors blondes with tipped up noses (and makes a long criticism of Cleopatra’s schnoz). He grudgingly tolerates Mexicans and gays so long as they don’t get in his way. He shows no hint of the social changes that are to come to America.

But he’s poetic, thoughtful in that boozy, miserable way. It’s hard not to want a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon or gin sitting next to you as you read. His mixed need for — and bitter enjoyment of — those addictions is palpable. And maybe because we get so close to him physically — the headaches, the rumbling stomach, the pain of all sorts, we get … involved.

For people who know their Chandler up and down, there are extra pleasures. Marlowe often refers to characters from “The Long Goodbye” — as he’s mooning over old friendships that blossomed and soured. It’s easy to believe in a past life for this Marlowe. He is full up with the past tense — old cases, old loves.

The clothes are wonderful, too, a bit of a Life magazine view of the period. “The doorman wore a claw-hammer coat and an English style bowler hat.” Victim or sad-sack policeman, major or minor character — you always know what they’re wearing.

At first, when I felt aware of the machinery being set in motion, I worried: Does it make sense to revive someone else’s ideas? Does it ever feel really right to imitate? Isn’t channeling a dead writer a lot like adaptation — the copy never quite in the spirit of the original?

Yet Mr. Black is so insightful, thorough — so very smart — that he won me over. And I found myself turning the pages fast and wishing I still smoked and that I had a higher threshold for whiskey. It’s an odd sort of pleasure to be sad and down-and-dirty and mournful about all the rot in the world.

Kathleen George teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of seven Richard Christie novels and “The Johnstown Girls.”

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