Philip Marlowe … has a pretty good idea of just how messed up he is. He, too, may subscribe to the romantic notion of a hero whose efforts to defend the Good conveniently exempt him from the emotional demands that can be made on lesser men, but at least he has the sense to recognize that this stance has stunted him. Banville’s Marlowe, after inevitably falling into bed with the classy dame who shows up at his office in the first scene, lies around afterward thinking, “Clare Cavendish was out of my league, and I knew it.” Having treated her brusquely, he muses, “That’s Marlowe for you, the Indian who throws away a pearl richer than all his tribe.”You’ll find her full piece here.
Like poor Clare, we want to like Marlowe more than he’ll ever let us, but the fault is only partly his. There’s a decided twist or kink of nastiness in everything Chandler ever wrote, a Campari-like bitterness that gives his fiction its piquancy but can at times induce nausea. His generalized contempt for much of humanity is not above using race, sex or sexual orientation as a justification and this makes him and his hero a bit of a bully. When you get Chandler’s hard-boiled Los Angeles filtered through Banville’s more equanimous sensibility, there’s also a lot less about “wetbacks” or “shines,” and fewer patronizing remarks about women who are neither as smart nor as alluring as they think.
On the downside, Banville--whose own ornate prose style has often been likened to that of Joyce--lacks the vulgarity to achieve Chandler’s signature toughness. You’re not going to find a line like “The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” in “The Black-Eyed Blonde.” Banville does, however, have Chandler’s ironic understatement down cold: “They came through the door in a hurry. They were impatient fellows in general, as I was to find out.”
As someone who could never summon the interest to finish one of Banville’s Dublin-set detective novels (also written under the name Benjamin Black), I was impressed by the plotting of “The Black-Eye Blonde,” its perfect pacing and use of misdirection, exactly the sort of skills you’d expect to find lacking in a literary novelist. Finally, and for me most importantly, Banville nails the spoiled L.A. atmosphere that is Chandler’s forte: the vast, gluey hours spent in the car; the dusty, narcotized bungalows with dwarf palms out front and mementos of the residents’ Midwestern past inside; the dark, shabby, yeasty-smelling bars huddled back from the relentless sunshine.
READ MORE: “The Brand Is My Business,” by Sarah Weinman (The Nation); “Black Beauties,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).