Raymond Chandler had ambitions for the detective novel. “Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic,” he wrote in 1940 in “The Simple Art of Murder,” and Chandler, who died in 1959, thought his genre stood as good a chance as any of getting reality right. Later in that manifesto, he compares its practitioners to Aeschylus and Shakespeare. As Chandler remarked, famously, of Dashiell Hammett, “[He] did … what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” If newness was what Chandler looked for, he must have been pleased with what he saw happening at his typewriter. Though he started out writing for pulp magazines, Chandler’s fiction eventually won an audience that defied categorization. In 1955, the Daily Express canvassed its readers for their favorite lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow celebrities. As Chandler later wrote, “Marilyn Monroe and I were the only ones that made all three brows.”
Chandler was a stylist, but that wasn’t what made him as famous as Monroe. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” as Chandler put it in “Simple Art.” “He is the hero, he is everything.” His great hero is Philip Marlowe, the Los Angeles private investigator. Marlowe made his debut in The Big Sleep in 1939, and in the fiction Chandler wrote after that, he is everything. He is also everyman, a new kind of detective, less a rationalist in search of an answer than a guy trying to keep his cool. This is, in a nutshell, the difference with Sherlock Holmes. When, late in Big Sleep, Marlowe gets home and discovers the nymphomaniac rich girl naked in his bed, he lights a cigarette and pours himself a drink. He studies his chessboard—practically his sole possession. Eventually, he asks the girl how she broke into his apartment. When she explains, Marlowe says, “Now I know how you got in tell me how you’re going to go out.” That is what is meant by hardboiled.
After she leaves, “I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.” The scene is over the top but typical of Marlowe, who is a creature of inhibitions. Chandler has an interesting way of making him recite his inner thoughts while sounding like he wished to hell he wouldn’t. He is weird about women (“Women made me sick”), whom he often finds occasion to slap, and he doesn’t like homosexuals either. In Big Sleep, there are forebodings of a “fag party.” One might see in these the standard failings of a man who died just short of the ’60s, but they’re also important to Marlowe’s truculent, antisocial persona. There is weirdness from Chandler, too. His metaphors are ridiculous even when they’re brilliant. Of an ex-con in Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler writes, “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” It is the poetry of a mind that has spent a lot of time hanging out in diners.
The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has identified that sentence as an object of his particular admiration. You’d think that all the hang-ups with which Chandler saddled the figure of Marlowe would have made him tricky for later artists to embrace, but of course the opposite has happened. Freed from his creator, Marlowe lives on abundantly. There have been movie adaptations, by Howard Hawks and Robert Altman (among others), television series, radio serials, innumerable pastiches and even a video game. Some Marlowes are hard to forget. Humphrey Bogart’s face, in Hakws’s Big Sleep is still the first thing most people associate with Chandler’s hero. It doesn’t always go well. In 1991, the late crime writer Robert B. Parker, the dean of Chandler admirers, wrote Perchance to Dream, a sequel to Big Sleep. Reviewers were unkind. “If Raymond Chandler had written like Robert B. Parker,” wrote Martin Amis in The New York Times, “he wouldn’t have been Raymond Chandler. He would have been Robert B. Parker, a less-exalted figure.”
In his new novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, John Banville, under the pen name Benjamin Black, tries to out-Parker Parker by succeeding in being Chandler. His hero is Philip Marlowe, his milieu is mid-century Los Angeles, and his title derives from an entry in one of Chandler’s notebooks. As spin-offs go, Mr. Black’s is scrupulous, and readers who have spent time in Chandlerland before will recognize a man who knows the custom of the country. There’s a mystery blonde, a dubious death and an accumulating pile of corpses. The people with money have no principles, and the people with principles have no money. (In noir terms, this is Economics 101.) All of the essential ingredients are there, afloat in a tumbler of Santa Monica sleaze.
Mr. Black is not an obvious candidate to take over from a long-dead genius of American slang. For one thing, he is Irish. He is also a bit of a highbrow. His last novel (as Mr. Banville), The Infinities (2009), was about the Gods. But as anybody who knows Mr. Banville’s fiction—a rogues’ gallery of frauds and
usurpers—could tell you, impersonation is his forte. Indeed, he can ape Chandler seemingly at will. “It’s part of the story of my life,” his Marlowe thinks, “sitting in cars late at night with stale cigarette smoke in my nostrils and the night birds crying.” It’s all there—the weariness, the romance, the detached despair. But Mr. Black can also make words do things Chandler could only dream of. Unlike the master, he has eyes for nature: “The rain was making the water in the lake look like a bed of nails,” Mr. Black’s Marlowe thinks. That’s a new note, but it isn’t a false one.
The plot of Black-Eyed Blonde, in classic Chandler fashion, is bleak and just short of clever. (Chandler didn’t like a clever plot. It distracted too much from the bleakness.) The blonde (an heiress, married, beautiful) hires Marlowe to track down a lover who has run out on her. Only the lover turns out to be dead. Then he turns out not to be dead. Then he turns out, or so it seems, not to be her lover. Soon darker forces than the blonde are on the hunt for the undead cad, with the result being that Marlowe gets beat up a lot. “An ache is an ache,” he thinks. A knight at heart, Marlowe, as usual, finds himself a pawn in someone else’s endgame. “I seemed to know a lot of people who had understandings with each other,” he thinks. He never gets paid.
Mr. Black has chosen to close out a storyline left dangling by The Long Goodbye, and it will no doubt thrill or outrage Chandler’s devotees, as will other changes. Marlowe still drinks and smokes but is otherwise a warmer figure: gay-friendly, nonracist and a quoter of poetry. He has even shaped up on the woman front. The eyes of the title blonde are “a lustrous shade of seal-black that made something catch in my throat.” That comes in the first scene, like a warning shot across the bows. The only thing the old Marlowe’s throat ever caught on was tar.
For nonpartisans, however, the fun lies in watching two styles tangle, and in the small effects—the “juicy sob” of a weak young man or an old cop captured in a line: “a shapeless wad of weariness and melancholy and the occasional sudden rage.” With an artfulness worthy of the original, Mr. Black has made it new, though he doesn’t forget whom he owes. The villains have fake British accents, Chandler Boulevard comes up, and there’s even a reference to the movie Double Indemnity, whose screenplay Chandler wrote. “Lies are life’s almost-anagrams,” says the narrator of Shroud, his 2002 novel (as Mr. Banville). And Black-Eyed Blonde is rich in anagrammatic allusions to the game it plays.
Some of this might seem a bit cerebral for noir, but the eye for imposture is pure Chandler. “Pictures have made them all like that,” as Marlowe thinks of the “elaborately casual voice” of one hoodlum in Big Sleep, and in all his books, Chandler reminds us that toughness is a form of phoniness. It was his genius. Plenty of people can write noir, but it took Chandler to see what lay on the far side of the darkness; that’s what makes his writing literature. It’s also why The Black-Eyed Blonde, like all the best Marlowe works, ends with a revelation of “how soft you are, how soft you’ll always be.” Fans of Marlowe will recognize this insight, though it isn’t what you’d call hardboiled. By imitating what counts, Mr. Black shows us that Chandler wasn’t always Chandleresque.