June 20, 2014

Marlowe rises from the grave ... then sinks into it again.

It's been called literary ventriloquism - the ability to write in the 'voice' of another writer. That idea, once a jeu d'esprit, has now become big business. I guess it began with Kingsley Amis writing a James Bond novel - Colonel Sun - after Fleming's death, following his own critical examination of the Bond phenomenon, The James Bond Dossier. Subsequently, Wikipedia provides a frighteningly long list of Bond books written by other writers, culminating most recently with William Boyd's poor effort, Solo.

Recently, the Booker-Prize winning author John Banville, writing in his guise as Benjamin Black, has produced a Raymond Chandler 'continuation', The Black-Eyed Blonde, apparently a title that Chandler had earmarked in his notes for future use. This follows a couple of attempts at Chandler follow-ons from the prolific and often excellent Robert B. Parker - Poodle Springs and Perchance to Dream, neither of which met with much approval from hard-boiled fans. But then, expectations are high when it comes to Raymond Chandler.

So what does one expect of a 'Chandler' novel? Well, typically, extraordinarily vivid 
Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
There was a sudden silence as heavy as a water-logged boat. 
He had a battered face that looked as if it had been hit by everything but the bucket of a dragline. It was scarred, flattened, thickened, checkered, and welted. It was a face that had nothing to fear. Everything had been done to it that anybody could think of.
These are examples from just the first seven pages of Farewell, My Lovely - and there's nothing to match them in the whole of The Black-Eyed Blonde. Chandler used language like a hammer and a scalpel, forcing Marlowe's perception of the physical world into violent shape using similes and metaphors that insisted on being heard. Banville/Black's voice is a gentle thing, measured, balanced and noticing subtleties:
He fingered his mustache, which had tiny beads of moisture sprinkled through it. I didn’t like looking at it. The worst thing about it was the little gap down the middle of it, a pale nick that seemed too intimate a part of him to be on public show.
That's a really nice perception, but one that Chandler's Marlowe would never make: it's too 'literary' in tone for the kind of books that Chandler knew he was writing.

By the same token, Black can write some really clunking lines: 
He leaned back, a big broad smile spreading slowly over his face, like molasses.
Yeah, well, you can kind of get the idea of something spreading slowly ... but molasses is a gooey, treacley substance that exists as a liquid pool, not a small, defined, shaped feature like a mouth forming a smile. It just doesn't call up a useful image.

Throughout the book you get the sense of Black working hard to stay within the confines of Chandler's voice, and thereby throttling the life out of his own prose. It's all so measured and controlled that - with a few exceptions - the language remains prosaic, like a mimic who captures the voice of a comedian but can't tell jokes.

As for the plot-line, that too is odd. It becomes apparent that it's a continuation of the story of The Long Goodbye, but if you don't know the characters and the plot of that book, the resolution comes somewhat out of left-field. Black does his best to prepare us for it by making reference to characters who are not players in The Black-Eyed Blonde itself, but the references seem forced and inessential, barely backstory, only making sense as the climax hoves into view. And while the development of the incidents in the book and the story outcomes are handled smoothly, it's rather one-paced - there's little excitement or fear or anticipation, none of the sense that one has in Chandler's Marlowe books that the hero's stepping into dark territory where death and mayhem are always possibilities. It's all too refined and carefully set up, like a play that the actors have performed a thousand times and in which they now have no emotional investment.

All of which is not to say that the book is uninteresting or particularly bad. It's just too cautious with the legacy, controlled in the language and, in the end, not vital enough in the telling. It reads almost like one of Chandler's first drafts that he might have gone through afterwards, adding the metaphors, similes and tropes which we expect and which were Marlowe's stock-in-trade.

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