In Black-Eyed Blonde, mystery writer John Banville writing under the pen name of Benjamin Black takes on the task of writing a new Philip Marlowe novel more than a half century after the passing of Marlowe’s legendary creator Raymond Chandler.
The plot is a well-done but typical hard-boiled story line. A strikingly beautiful woman walks into Marlowe’s office and hires him to find her boyfriend. Marlowe finds out the boyfriend was killed, but the woman claims to have seen him in San Francisco after that.
Banville doesn’t come close to matching Chandler’s powerful prose and snappy dialogue. In many ways, while this Marlowe isn’t a pushover, he’s far more polite and measured than Chandler’s Marlowe ever was, certainly far softer than he was in The Long Goodbye which this book is set after. To be fair, I don’t think that’s entirely a bad point, given Marlowe was almost over the top in that.
However, what Banville does get right are the Chandleresque characters, these sort of quirky and engaging side characters that hold not only Marlowe’s attention but ours. The plot is a solid and engaging piece of classic hard-boiled detective fiction until the last couple chapters, which isn’t common in pastiches. I’ve read some of Robert Goldsborough’s Nero Wolfe novels and spent most of the books unable to get into the unsubstantial plots and have stewed over how unlike Nero Wolfe the story is. In Black-Eyed Blonde, there were a couple minutes where I thought, “This isn’t really Philip Marlowe but whatever it is, it’s very good.”
However, the ending was a bit of a letdown. Without going into details, the book becomes, in many ways, a sequel to The Long Goodbye. There’s no need for a sequel to The Long Goodbye, and the ending of this book doesn’t add luster to that classic tale. Too often pastiche writers assume we want sequels and follow ups to previous stories. With Marlowe, what I want are new standalone mysteries that measure up to what’s come before. Unlike Nero Wolfe, Marlowe was never a character whose existence depended on a regular cast or continuity. And to be fair, this element only looms in the end of the book. Still, I would have preferred a conclusion that made the book standalone rather than on the shoulder’s of a predecessor.
Overall, if you like classic hard-boiled novels, you’ll enjoy this book provided you’re not turned off by it’s attempt to make itself a sequel to one of the most beloved hard-boiled novels.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0
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