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28 March 2014

Watching the detective: how John Banville perfected the Raymond Chandler sequel

John Banville's Benjamin Black novels are irresistable. It's as if Henry James were writing under the pseudonym of Arthur Conan Doyle.

By Ian Sansom

The Black-Eyed Blonde
Benjamin Black
Mantle, 320pp, £16.99

“I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is,” wrote Raymond Chandler. Me neither, but I have a feeling it’s probably not writing sequels to the novels of Raymond Chandler. Then again, how could John Banville possibly resist? Having established a career as a literary novelist, Banville turned to crime fiction in 2006 under the name Benjamin Black and he hasn’t looked back since. He is that rare thing, a writer who can play both high and low, and most everything in between, a prose stylist who can also plot. It’s as if Henry James were writing under the pseudonym of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Raymond Chandler underwent a similar transformation: he was a Chatterton who became a Chesterton, a failed poet and critic who turned to detective fiction late in life to make money. The gamble paid off. He took an art form that no one took seriously and made people look at it again. Maybe, his readers wondered, a detective novel can be literature after all.

Banville is not the first to have taken up the Chandler challenge; writers have been adapting, rewriting and reimagining his work for years. There just wasn’t enough of the original stuff: Chandler wrote roughly 20 stories for the pulp magazines – and most of them weren’t much good – and only seven full-length books, so his Philip Marlowe series early on became the victim-beneficiary of what we might call resus-writing, with other writers producing nearly new, knock-off versions. Perhaps the most notable homages were by the late, great Robert B Parker, who worked up a few Chandler fragments into a novel, Poodle Springs (1989), and produced a sequel to The Big Sleep in 1991, Perchance to Dream. So how does Banville fare in this freakish form of Frankenstein-fiction?

He shares with Chandler an intense interest in style. “In the long run, however little you talk or even think about it,” Chandler wrote to a correspondent, “the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.” If anything, Banville has invested even more time in his style than Chandler, and it shows. Chandler attempted to pep up what he called the “flat, toneless and tiresome” texture of American English by sprinkling it with extravagant similes and metaphors, which were often so strange and so piquant that they overpowered the rest of the content of the novels. “A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window”? Fantastic. But name the blonde. Or the book.

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In The Black-Eyed Blonde Banville produces nothing quite so memorable, or forgettable. If anything, oddly, the book is probably better than an actual Chandler: more coherent, and more consistent, more careful. Banville is simply a more elegant writer. Chandler was a metaphorical rogue trader; Banville is a class act. His similes, for one thing, usually make sense. “She wore a hat . . . that made it seem as if a small bird had alighted on the side of her hair and settled there happily.” “An empty house has a way of swallowing sounds, like a dry creek sucking down water.” Only once or twice does he hit exactly the right (wrong) note: “Around here there are days in high summer when the sun works on you like a gorilla peeling a banana.”

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All of the other necessary Chandler tropes and devices and sets and scenes are here: Marlowe’s office, his apartment, the beautiful big LA houses, the lowlife. We get Bernie Ohls and Terry Lennox, and there is even a suitcase that I think may long ago have been abandoned by Chandler in The Long Goodbye. Indeed, Banville has done his homework so thoroughly, his revision is so perfect, that sometimes the story reads like a cribsheet. He has noted Chandler’s odd obsession with women’s fingernails, for instance, and with bald heads, and ears. (One of his most memorably strange descriptions, from The High Window, combines both baldness and weird-eariness: “He was a tall man with glasses and a high-domed bald head that made his ears look as if they had slipped down his head.” Banville: “They were very pretty ears, which is a rare thing, ears being in my estimation just a little less weird-looking than feet.”) Banville also does that thing that Chandler often does with the repetition of a crucial colour term: “He was short and stocky and had gray cheeks and gray lips, and a bald gray pate over which a few long strands of oily gray hair were carefully plastered.” It’s uncanny.

There’s a nice self-referential moment in the book when a woman reminds Banville’s Marlowe of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, the 1944 Billy Wilder film, based on the novella by James M Cain, for which Chandler wrote the screenplay. The story goes that when Chandler produced his first draft of the script, Wilder hurled it across the room, saying: “This is shit, Mr Chandler.” This is perfect Mr Banville.