The Black-Eyed Blonde

Any writer who resurrects Philip Marlowe, the private eye created by Raymond Chandler in his 1939 novel The Big Sleep, is inviting comparison with one of the masters of noir fiction. When Robert B. Parker, for example, wrote his Marlowe novels — Poodle Springs in 1989 and Perchance to Dream in 1991 — no less a critic than Martin Amis accused Parker of reducing Marlowe to an “affable goon.” And Parker was an established American crime novelist. John Banville, by contrast, is an acclaimed Irish writer of literary fiction. Writing as Benjamin Black, however, Banville has arguably earned his noir credentials with a series of crime novels, set in murky 1950s Dublin, that feature a predictably wounded, fatalistic hero. Black’s novels are deft evocations of a particular place and time, memorable for their atmosphere if less satisfying when it comes to plot and suspense. Now, in The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel, Black trades Dublin’s 1950s gloom for California’s 1940s heat as he tries his hand at reinventing the sardonic thirty eight year-old gumshoe who, in Chandler’s words, hasn’t “…a feeling or a scruple in the world” (The Big Sleep). Not one he’ll admit to, anyhow.

Black’s Marlowe is a softer tough guy. “You get hardened by life knocking away at you since you were old enough to feel heartsore,” he laments, “but then comes a knock that’s bigger than anything you’ve experienced so far…”  This one is delivered by the blonde of the title, Clare Cavendish, who launches the action by appearing in Marlowe’s office looking for help. “That smile,” Marlowe notes, “it was like something she had set a match to a long time ago and then left to smolder on by itself.”

The laconic grace of Black’s descriptions and the syncopated rhythm of his best dialogue (” ‘Known him long, your Mr. Peterson?’ I asked. ‘Not long.’ ‘How long would not long be?’ “) set the dark tone and brisk pace. Clare wants Marlowe to find her erstwhile love, Nico Peterson. Who happens to be dead. Or maybe not. Was Peterson really killed outside the chic night spot where he and Clare met? Or did she just see him on a San Francisco street? Soon Marlowe is ruffling feathers at the Cahuilla Club  — where a handshake from the manager is “…like being given a sleek, cool-skinned animal to hold for a moment or two” — and at Clare’s sumptuous estate, Langrishe Lodge, which she shares with a buffoonish husband, an Irish mother, and a heroin-addicted brother.

Back on the other side of the tracks, he runs into Peterson’s sister and a couple of vicious Mexicans who are also on Peterson’s trail. A missing suitcase, a loony villain complete with riding boots and cane, a few corpses, innocent and otherwise, lead Marlowe to the sordid truth and, of course, to heartbreak. “Women are not the only thing I don’t understand,” he admits. “I don’t understand myself, either, not one little bit.” Black’s plot, unfortunately, has a similar problem. A flimsy thing swathed in atmosphere, its hasty denouement is signaled by the appearance — from behind a curtain, by gad — of an old adversary of Marlowe’s whose role must be explained. As Chandler’s Marlowe might have said, “Oh, sure.”