Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Can Banville Really Bring Back Marlowe?

Efforts over the years to recapture the storytelling magic of detective novelist Raymond Chandler have been, well, hit and miss.

Uruguayan author Hiber Conteris took on the task in Ten Percent of Life (1987). Robert B. Parker tried it again in Poodle Springs (1989) and Perchance to Dream (1991). Perhaps the most valuable and intriguing effort was made by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration, editor Byron Preiss’ 1998 collection of short stories, set in different decades of the 20th century and penned by an assortment of modern crime fictionists (including Max Allan Collins, Jonathan Valin, Sara Paretsky, and Robert Crais), but all featuring Chandler’s iconic Los Angeles private eye, Philip Marlowe.

Now, though, comes Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville, who--under the pseudonym Benjamin Black--has composed five novels (so far) starring a hard-drinking Dublin pathologist known only as Quirke. (The latest of those, Vengeance, is out this week.) As publisher Henry Holt announced today, Banville will write an as-yet-untitled new Marlowe novel, to be released in 2013.

“Along with Marlowe,” Holt explained, “Banville will bring back policeman Bernie Ohls, the gumshoe’s good friend.

“The book will have an original plot and take place in the 1940s. The setting will remain in Bay City--Chandler’s fictional stand-in for Santa Monica, California--and feature Chandler’s hallmark noir ambience.”

John Sterling, who edits the Black novels, calls this project “a perfect literary hand-off. There is no one better to bring Philip Marlowe back to life for the vast readership that loves noir crime fiction.”

But count me among the skeptical. I’m more than likely to pick up and read whatever Banville presents in the way of a new Chandler outing, just as I was interested in reading Joe Gores’ prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Spade & Archer (2009). However, I am not convinced that Banville’s gloomy yet refined style is ideal for a tale headlined by that contemplative knight errant, Marlowe.

We shall see.

READ MORE:Philip Marlowe Set to Return in Novel by John Banville,” by John Williams (The New York Times); “The Reading Life: Marlowe’s Ghost,” by David L. Ulin (Los Angeles Times); “Philip Marlowe’s Return,” by Oline Cogdill (Mystery Scene).


Kevin Burton Smith said...

I agree. Conteris, the P.I. writers in the Centennial collection, and Parker all showed tremendous understanding of Chandler's work and empathy with Marlowe, even if the results weren't always as wonderful as I'd hoped. (Though many of the results were, in fact, very very good).

But Black? His gloomy, fussy, drizzly books seem a far cry from the sun-bleached mean streets and scorched and broken dreams of Marlowe's LA.

Sure, Black might be able to pull it off (he is, after all, a pretty decent writer) but it's like the old joke about the guy who teaches his dog to speak. Great, a neighbour points out, but does the dog have anything really interesting to say?

michael said...

My question is why (besides the obvious). Such efforts miss the point of the success of iconic characters such as Marlowe. It is the combination of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe that made the books a success and without both the books will always lack something.

Barry Ergang said...

A writer who I think really nailed the Chandler style and milieu, far better than Parker and some of the others you mention, was Keith Laumer in Deadfall.