There are some limits Marlowes just won’t cross

Christopher Tayler

  • BuyThe Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black
    Mantle, 320 pp, £16.99, February, ISBN 978 1 4472 3668 9

‘I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust,’ a waiting femme fatale says when Philip Marlowe hits his office in The Big Sleep (1939). Marlowe’s response: ‘Who’s he?’ ‘A French writer,’ she says, ‘a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn’t know him.’ She couldn’t have said the same to Philo Vance, S.S. Van Dine’s famous aesthete-sleuth – polo player, expert in Chinese ceramics, former student of William James – whom Raymond Chandler regarded as ‘the most asinine character in detective fiction’, and on some level that’s probably the point. (‘I’m not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance,’ Marlowe says later on.) Even so, it’s surprising that Marlowe doesn’t know who Proust is: he’s usually more knowingly dismissive when it comes to cultural matters, especially when they touch, as they often seem to do, on his complicated feelings about highbrow tastes and ‘degenerate’ sexuality. ‘An interesting bit … Asta Dial’s Spirit of Dawn’, a shady gigolo type says ‘negligently’ of a modernist sculpture in Farewell, My Lovely (1940). ‘I thought it was Klopstein’s Two Warts on a Fanny,’ Marlowe says. Interior decoration ‘in the latest sub-phallic symbolism’ meets his disapproval too, and a catalogue of types of blonde in The Long Good-Bye (1953) features

the pale, pale blonde with anaemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provençal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late.

Khachaturian isn’t let off the hook either: ‘He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt and the hell with it.’

Chandler, in his letters, took a similarly hardboiled stance towards ‘the fancy boys’, as he called the writers whom critics – all of them sterile phonies – said they liked. They could be divided, he wrote in 1957, into ‘the subtle-subtle ones … the stream-of-consciousness ladies and gents … the editorial novelists … and finally all the clever-clever darlings with the fluty voices’, who showed ‘that cleverness, like perhaps strawberries, is a perishable commodity’. Yet Chandler wasn’t, or wasn’t only, a pulp craftsman embittered by the faint praise he’d been lobbed by Edmund Wilson before the likes of Eliot and Auden announced themselves as fans. Slick magazine writers were no good either – ‘their scenes are almost tiresomely neat … but they are little men who have forgotten how to pray’ – and when discussing the right way to do things he’d bring in Shakespeare or Henry James. As he saw it, the modernist emphasis on technique was a reaction to a loss of the finer feelings that real art required, a loss caused chiefly by excessive frankness about sex. This threw an ennobling light on crime fiction: since love stories couldn’t function ‘against a background of cheese cakes and multiple marriages’, death, and the emotionally dead, were the only big subjects left.

It’s hard to know how seriously Chandler took these musings. On top of being a relapse-prone white-knuckle drunk, he was a lonely man who preferred the mail to company and took pains to make his letters entertainingly cantankerous. Still, it’s clear that he had trouble reconciling the clean-limbed notions of ‘romance’ he’d absorbed in his youth in London – where, before the First World War, he briefly set up shop as, in his words, a ‘Grade B Georgian’ poet – with the understanding of big-city temptations he’d acquired as a married, pissed-up, intermittently skirt-chasing Los Angeles oil executive in the 1920s. (Booze-induced disappearances, rather than the Depression, did for his oil career in 1932, prompting him to try his hand at writing for the pulps.) It’s a stretch to say that the double vision this gave him animates the books: Marlowe’s voice, built on Hemingway and New Yorker-style wit as much as Dashiell Hammett, sees to that. But Chandler’s ambivalence about sex, California and industrial civilisation in general is a big part of his para-modernist appeal. You don’t have to squint too hard to see a resemblance to The Waste Land in The Big Sleep’s motifs of degraded chivalry and creepy vegetation, or in Marlowe’s stylised recoil from ‘streamlined demi-virgins’.

Women are the main objects of Marlowe’s own double vision. She might have ankles ‘with enough melodic line for a tone poem’, but a woman will nearly always turn out to be the killer, and in one scene a goodie explains that it’s OK her sister was murdered because ‘in another ten years she would have been a sex-ridden hag.’ Men who associate with such floozies are quite likely to be gay – a contemptible form of ‘nastiness’, in Marlowe’s view, though a drunken novelist later tells him it’s unwise to say so in print: ‘The queer is the artistic arbiter of our age, chum.’ Either way, it’s invariably men who provoke his strongest emotional reactions: a sailor with ‘eyes like a girl, a lovely girl’, and skin ‘soft as silk’, for instance, who puts his lips to Marlowe’s ear and holds his hand and is ‘the nicest man I had ever met’. And Marlowe is quicker with jokes about ‘The Killers’ and ‘Prufrock’ and lines from Walter Bagehot and Suetonius than a truly plain-speaking private dick ought to be. When the drunken novelist tells him that good stuff is written fast, and that claims to the contrary are ‘a lot of mish-mash’, he says: ‘It didn’t come easy to Flaubert, and his stuff is good.’

Gloomy in-jokes of that sort – Chandler wrote painfully slowly – are mostly confined to The Long Good-Bye, the last of the classic books. (Chandler half-heartedly quarried Playback – published in 1958 – out of a rejected screenplay after going back to full-time drinking in the wake of his wife’s death in 1954.) But Marlowe is self-conscious about his narratorial duties from the start. He keeps close watch on his similes: ‘I thought that was silly as soon as I thought of it,’ he says in The Big Sleep after likening a woman’s voice to ‘bells in a doll’s house’. On occasion he thinks of himself in the third person – ‘Very methodical guy, Marlowe. Nothing must interfere with his coffee technique’ – or has strange, charged moments of apprehension: ‘My mind drifted through waves of false memory, in which I seemed to do the same thing over and over again, go to the same places, meet the same people, say the same words to them, over and over again, and yet each time it seemed real, like something actually happening, and for the first time.’ Coming round after being blackjacked he can sound like Molloy or Malone: ‘Is that what I mean? What the hell do I care what I mean? Okay, better men than me have meant less.’

So it’s possible to see how commissioning a Marlowe novel from John Banville, whose agent represents the Chandler estate too, might have struck all the parties involved as an inspired piece of stunt casting. A disciple of Proust, Nabokov and Beckett, an admirer of German Romanticism and 17th-century painting, a reimaginer of such figures as Anthony Blunt and Paul de Man, and a frequent raider of mathematics and cosmology, Banville is – no question – one of the fancy boys, sometimes verging on being a clever-clever darling. (‘As one of your most darkly glowing luminants has observed’ is the way the narrator of The Infinities (2009), a riff on Kleist’s Amphitryon set in a parallel universe, introduces a line from Nietzsche.) As ‘Benjamin Black’, though, he’s shown himself willing to turn out workmanlike crime stories, and some of his best non-Black novels – among them The Book of Evidence (1989) and The Untouchable (1997) – add sinister plot elements to the self-aware, sardonic voice, all-over descriptive polish and rapt attention to atmosphere his fiction shares with Chandler’s. There’s even an Irish connection: Chandler’s mother grew up in Waterford among snooty West Britons, a species Banville loves to scrutinise. And Banville has always written well about drink.

Robert B. Parker, the last novelist to try on Chandler’s shoes, was a three-books-a-year man – his main hero was a private eye called Spenser – who’d done a PhD on hardboiled literature. His first effort, Poodle Springs (1989), was hampered by a set-up sketched and then abandoned by Chandler in which Marlowe has got married and moved to Riverside County. His second, Perchance to Dream (1991), a sequel to The Big Sleep, was hampered by its title, which caused Martin Amis to wonder in the New York Times if Sleep Bigger or The Bigger Sleep would have done the job more effectively. The Black-Eyed Blonde might seem to go too far the other way, but it’s an echt Chandlerism: Banville took it from a list of titles Chandler kept, a list that also includes Stop Screaming – It’s Me and, according to Tom Hiney’s not wonderfully reliable biography, Twenty Inches of Monkey. Banville, or Black, wisely jettisons the marriage stuff, and though there’s an allusion to the end of Playback – a woman in Paris is still hanging on the phone, it seems – the story is mostly positioned as a follow-up to The Long Good-Bye.

‘It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer,’ it begins, ‘when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving.’ In outline, the plot has a similar air of dutiful pastiche. A knockout dame, Clare Cavendish, married to a drunken polo player, hires Marlowe to track down her missing lover, Nico Peterson, a small-time grifter to whom, per Chandlerian procedure, minor characters keep unflatteringly likening Marlowe. Naturally, Clare knows more than she’s letting on: for opaque reasons, she fails to mention that Nico has been killed in a hit-and-run. Only after Marlowe has rather slowly dug up this publicly recorded fact does she tell him she’s seen the dead man alive in San Francisco – or, as Marlowe puts it, sounding more like Danny De Vito in the movie of LA Confidential, ‘the cool and fashionable city of San Francisco’. After that, the tempo gradually picks up. There’s an eerie country club, an assortment of shifty millionaires, a pair of Mexican hit men – has Banville been watching Breaking Bad? – and a run-in with Bernie Ohls from the DA’s office. Though intermittent summaries of one of Chandler’s plots make the twist ending foreseeable, it’s preceded by an unexpected, Ian Fleming-like sequence with a turn from a violent butler.

Banville has some fun giving Clare an Irish background. ‘Look at that, now,’ her mother, a perfume magnate whose Protestant husband died nastily for Michael Collins, says of a cup of tea: ‘Strong enough to trot a mouse on.’ He amuses himself, also, by playing up the hero’s drink problem – Marlowe has to be helped into a taxi, passes out in his clothes, throws up – and having him grouse about his physical infirmities. ‘It was going to be a long time before that swelling abated,’ he observes after being sapped. Long journeys are hard on him: ‘I pulled in, and when I got out of the car my lower back nearly seized up, I was so stiff after that drive.’ A mob boss initiates a tense exchange about respiratory complaints:

‘The smog in this city,’ he said, putting the handkerchief away and shaking his head. ‘It plays havoc with my air passages.’ He peered at me. ‘Does it trouble you?’

‘Some,’ I said. ‘But I’ve got trouble in that department already.’

‘Oh, yes?’

Suddenly he didn’t seem to mind wasting time.

‘Smashed septum,’ I said, tapping a finger to the bridge of my nose.

But beyond a few twee allusions – ‘Nice street, Chandler [Boulevard], nothing mean about it: it’s broad and clean and well lighted’ – that’s as far as Banville takes the joke, if a joke is what it is. Most of the time, as you’d expect of an estate-authorised production, he plays it pretty straight, and an abundance of phrases like ‘his flinty blue eyes seeming to look into my very soul’ gives a strong impression that he thinks of the project as a disposable bit of slumming. If so, fair enough: it’s not easy to imagine what a period-correct, saleable yet artistically weighty Chandler pastiche would look like, or why Banville would want to take the time to write one. All the same, what we get is an eccentric performance which makes it hard not to wonder if he hasn’t overestimated his powers as a straight-up storyteller.

He’s most comfortable with the self-conscious side of Chandler, which he overdoes: ‘That’s Marlowe for you, the Indian who throws away a pearl richer than all his tribe’; ‘there are some limits us Marlowes just won’t cross.’ He has more luck with Chandler’s trick of throwing in complaints about Hollywood-influenced affectations among cops and robbers, but pushes that too hard as well, and the same goes for his bookish touches. In addition to Shakespeare and Eliot, a.k.a. ‘the poet’, the novel glances at Melville, Scott Fitzgerald, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Wilde (twice) and Peter Pan: ‘You know – by J.M. Barrie?’ At least when Pascal’s wager comes up for the first time, Marlowe says: ‘Who’s Pascal?’ Yet there are many wrong notes, some involving American English (‘got’ instead of ‘gotten’; ‘baddies’), some endearing (‘I tootled around the corner’), and some belonging in The Naked Gun: ‘What I knew about Peterson, dead or alive, amounted to a very small hill of beans – in fact, it wasn’t even that; there was no hill, and the few beans I had were dry and tasteless … Hendricks was watching me … I guess he was counting his beans, too.’

*

Along with non-Chandlerian Yiddishisms like ‘the whole schlamozzle’, the supporting cast is similarly suggestive of parody. Banville’s version of Bernie Ohls, a recurring character who’s usually more than a match for Marlowe, might just as well be telling Leslie Nielsen that the DA’s chewing his ass on this one. As for the protagonist, he’s an oddly inert figure. People react to him as though he’s a storied private detective but he doesn’t seem so sure. ‘I’ve never been much of a fighter,’ he tells us. Being outdoors makes him ‘worried, in a twitchy sort of way’, and phone calls – even expected ones – make him jump. His main problem with women is that they make him tongue-tied: he’s ready with a snappy comeback if he meets a racist or a homophobe, but faced with a manipulative blonde he says ‘I don’t understand,’ and means it. Above all, he’s diffident, embarrassed, too shy to project himself forcefully and unable to lurk by a newsstand without feeling obliged to buy something he doesn’t want. At first it seems a cisatlantic thing, like his talk of ‘that type of English bread they call a cottage loaf’. After a while it seems more like hesitation over the plodding, screenwriterly demands of being a character in a dramatic action.

In this – and in his worries about apparently solid objects not being solid at all ‘but a swarm of particles’; his feeling that, ‘wanting things to make sense’, we impose stories ‘on the way things really are’; and his lack of interest in workaday detail (‘It was probably due for an oil change, or something like that’) – he resembles one of Banville’s regular narrators dressed up in a powder-blue suit. Banville is never less than professional about bringing in guys with guns and all the rest of it, but each diligently worked-up scene has a static quality, with lots of frozen epiphanies and zero feel for the jousting for dominance that Chandler’s style of dialogue depends on. The results are more interesting and far classier than, say, the ongoing James Bond books, but Chandler might have grumbled, as he once did, about highbrows who ‘should go back to school and stay there until they can make a story come alive with nothing but dialogue and concrete description’. Still, his estate can’t be faulted for lacking a sense of history. Black Mask, the venue for his first crime stories, was founded with an eye to subsidising a literary outlet then under the control of H.L Mencken. It was called The Smart Set, ‘A Magazine of Cleverness’.