Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #54: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Sequels always worm their way in. Even fifty years after the death of the original author, when reasonable people think all chances of sequels are gone, they still turn up, like weeds after a hard rain. Sometimes those sequels are pretty good, and sometimes...well, do I have to say the words Perchance to Dream?

A new book about Raymond Chandler's great genre-defining private detective Philip Marlowe doesn't need to be a sequel: Chandler didn't write any. Each of his seven novels was an entirely separate story, and he tried to suppress the short stories that he "cannibalized" into those novels -- he clearly had a sense that a novel should be a thing that stands on its own.

But all of the posthumous Marlowe stories have been sequels and continuations: first Robert B. Parker -- a writer whose stripped-down style was about as far from Chandleresque as could be imagined -- expanded Chandler's few pages of Poodle Springs into a bland, forgettable novel in 1989. A few years later, Parker continued his assault on Chandler's corpse with his The Big Sleep sequel, about which the less said, the better.

And now, another twenty years later -- perhaps because it took that long to get the taste of Perchance to Dream out of all of our mouths -- the Chandler estate has authorized another Marlowe novel, and of course it turns out to be a sequel. That's unfortunate, but at least The Black-Eyed Blonde isn't a direct sequel, and at least it follows up from Chandler's greatest novel, The Long Goodbye. (And, most importantly, at least "Benjamin Black" -- the thinnest of pseudonyms used by literary writer John Banville when he wants to write more quickly and include more mayhem in his stories -- is vastly more in sympathy with Chandler's style and concerns than Parker was.)

For a long time, Black-Eyed Blonde seems to be a riff or a companion piece to Long Goodbye, and I hope I'm not giving anything vital away by calling it a sequel. But the action of this novel completes Long Goodbye in a very deliberate fashion: it is a sequel to the Chandler book, and any serious look at Black-Eyed Blonde needs to take account of that.

It's the early 1950s, and Marlowe is still working out of that small office in the Cahuenga Building and living in a small furnished house in Laurel Canyon. Black doesn't describe the places and cars much, either to keep Black-Eyed Blonde from reading like a historical or to better follow Chandler, who kept his focus on people and dialogue. He does describe the people a bit more, particularly the femme fatale of the title: Clare Cavendish, rich and gorgeous and walking into Marlowe's office alone to hire him. She's married to a polo-playing wastrel, but she wants Marlowe to find her missing lover: Nico Peterson, a wanna-be agent only a cut or two above gigolo in the cutthroat LA social scene.

The case doesn't entirely make sense, but Marlowe is used to that. He assumes Clare is lying to him about something, but sets off to find the missing Peterson -- and immediately learns that Peterson died in a car accident two months ago, and that Clare was nearby when it happened. Her revised story is that she saw Peterson in passing on the street in San Francisco the week before, and she wants to know if he faked his death. And so Marlowe continues the investigation into the possibly-not-dead Peterson.

The usual Chandleresque complications follow, as Marlowe wanders around talking to people connected to Peterson and Clare: his sister, her mother and heroin-addict brother (it may have been a slight miscalculation on Black's part to have two men connected to Clare who are both useless wastrels, since her husband and brother can be difficult to differentiate), the manager of the club he left on the night of his "death." And there are thugs: two Mexican toughs, clearly sent by someone to find something, are visiting many of the same places as Marlowe, with their own more direct, violent ways of getting results.

Marlowe talks to everyone, including the cops Bernie Olds and Joe Green -- since no one has found a way to say goodbye to them yet -- repeatedly, circling the mystery of Peterson's disappearance and the deeper question of why Clare cares. And the answer circles Black-Eyed Blonde back to Long Goodbye, and its eventual denouement at Langrische Lodge, the mansion owned by Clare's perfume-magnate mother. There's murder involved, of course, and more lucrative crime as well. Marlowe comes through it all, as he must.

Black succeeds where Parker failed: Black-Eyed Blonde reads like a book Chandler could possibly have written, or like a first-generation follower of Chandler, with an authentic sense of time and place and a Marlowe as conflicted and ambivalent as the original. It might not be as impressive a novel as Big Sleep or Long Goodbye, but it's vastly superior to Perchance to Dream. It's probably better than Playback, actually. And, for a book about a singular literary creation written more than fifty years after the original author's death, that's very impressive.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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