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The Big Cabbage

Michael Hinds

The Black Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel, by Benjamin Black, Mantle, 320 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1447236689

Who needs another Philip Marlowe novel? We are already overrun with Marlowe-derivatives: from cinematic pastiches (the still wonderful Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), trans-genre homages of various subtlety (Blade Runner, The Big Lebowski, anything with Clint Eastwood in the twentieth century), video games (L.A. Noire) to Martin Rowson’s arch deployment of Marlowe as a walkthrough decipherer of The Wasteland in his graphic novel of Eliot’s poem. Even beginning a list like this is a mistake, as it threatens to overrun. The iconicity of Chandler’s creation is so assured simply because it is so thoroughly various. In this context, actually attempting a Philip Marlowe novel based on Chandler’s notes, as John Banville has done in his guise as Benjamin Black, is a more complicated task than it might appear. It has certainly been beyond some writers before; Robert Parker finished off Chandler’s Poodle Springs in 1989, and it nearly killed off the Marlowe myth altogether, a dull if efficient checklisting of essential generics. It could be argued that Parker was only experiencing a difficulty with inspiration that Chandler himself had and that the best was over. By the time of The Little Sister, it is hard to escape the idea that Marlowe was boring his creator; rereading Chandler is a fascinatingly uneven experience, all the more unsatisfying when he is read alongside the virtuosity of Hammett.

Banville-Black however knows what he is doing with Chandler; his Marlowe novel has everything you expect: some heavy drinking and fast talking, a slipping of a Mickey, a cold-cocking, a nasty killing of a fundamentally innocent woman, a missing person. He quickly moves into the classic Chandler duality of having Marlowe working the commissioned job while attending more thoroughly to the “real work” of upholding his singular version of justice. This operates as an apt enough metaphor for Banville-Black’s own work on the project, doing the work of Marlowe while laying his own claim to authority.

At the level of style, things get very good when they run to ingenious unpleasantness ‑ “the air was heavy and dense and smelled like a fat man after a long, hot bath” ‑ or just downright weird: “When he was gone, his wife and I just stood there for a while. I could hear her breathing. I imagined her lungs filling and emptying the tender pinkness of them, in their frail cage of glistening white-bone. She was the kind of woman to make a man think thoughts like that.” Some of the generic scenes are also brilliantly rendered, as in the existential snog at the end of Chapter 4, where Marlowe plays Meursault:

She had not moved at all, not that I’d noticed, yet somehow her face was closer to mine than it had been. There seemed nothing for it but to kiss her. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t respond, either. She just sat there and took it, and when I drew back she smiled and looked wistful. I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of the waves, of the pebbles hissing, and the gulls crying.

If some of this seems close to parody, that is not a flaw of the Marlovian method, but its necessary risk and inevitable outcome. This is why Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid works so well; it is a tissue of quotations from the noir canon, and their bedrock absurdities only licence the exaggerated antics of Steve Martin. The Black-Eyed Blonde knows as much, and acknowledges the bathos of its mode through allusions in turn to Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers.

At times, the writing is good enough to make you forget about whether this is a Marlowe book or not; Banville-Black gives us some wonderful set-pieces, as in this little Hopper painting:

I got up from my desk and took my pipe to the window and stood looking out at nothing in particular. In an office across the street, a secretary in a tartan blouse and wearing earphones from a Dictaphone machine was bent over her typewriter, tapping away. I had passed her on the street a few times. Nice little face, shy smile; the kind of girl who lives with her mother and cooks roast beef for Sunday lunch. This is a lonely town.

There is unrepentant knowledgeability in this writing, but at its best it remains unobtrusive; Banville-Black’s narration is a critical mode, suggesting auto-correction but in fact asserting the terms of his own vision:

Peterson’s place looked like a bit like a Japanese teahouse, or what I imagined a Japanese teahouse would look like. It consisted of a single story and was built of dark red pine, with a wraparound pond and a shingled roof that rose in four shallow slopes to a point in the middle with a weather vane on it.

Hello, Frank Lloyd Wright. This Marlowe knows Japanese teahouses alright. At other moments, however, credibility in the fantasy of Marloweville is harder to sustain; when Marlowe addresses the reader directly, “Look, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Mexicans”, the impact is curiously unsettling, as if we have moved from one kind of first-person confidence to another. In this moment, you feel like you are listening to the pseudo-apologies of Browning’s Duke of Ferrara rather than Chandler’s off-white knight with nothing to hide. Literariness encroaches less than subtly via name-dropping too; not only is Marlowe’s Elizabethan namesake cited (and quoted), but Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Naming operates throughout the book as an anxious signifier of history, as if otherwise we would be unable to attach credibility to the world of the book; so we get the range of movie and literary references, and on page 50 a “peacock screams like Liberace”. Elsewhere, this Marlowe goes to great lengths to show how learnedly unlearned he can be: “Streets were where I did my boyhood wanderings and experienced my youthful epiphanies. I don’t think I’d have recognized a daffodil if I saw one.” Unless it came in a poem from Wordsworth, we can suppose, is the real point.

What is unsettling about The Black-Eyed Blonde is that its author appears at times to care about the plot, as if he had never read any Chandler at all:

I was puzzled. What had been going on, exactly, for the past hour? The guided tour of the grounds, the history of the bougainvillea plant, the lecture on philanthropy, the tea ceremony ‑ what had all that been about? Why had Hanson given so much eartime to a gumshoe asking nosy questions about a not very significant death on a nearby road? Was he just a guy with not enough to do, whiling away part of a lazy morning by entertaining a representative of the sordid world beyond the gilded gates of the Cahuilla Club? Somehow I wasn’t convinced that this was the case. And if it wasn’t, what did he know that he’d chosen not to tell me?

The novel moves leanly towards its conclusion, but you miss the confusion and messiness of Chandler as it does so; and nothing is messier in Chandler than his throttled homoeroticism:

“Who said I had a key?”
“Don’t kid me, son. The fag gave you one. You’ve got a nice clean manly little room in there. He shooed you out and locked it up when he had lady visitors. He was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men. Think I can’t figure people like him and you out?”

I still held his automatic more or less pointed at him, but he swung on me just the same. It caught me flush on the chin. I backstepped fast enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.
I threw the gun down at the kid’s feet and said: “Maybe you need this.”
He stooped for it like a flash. There was nothing slow about his movements. I sank a fist in the side of his neck. He toppled over sideways, clawing for the gun and not reaching it. I picked it up again and threw it in the car. The boy came up on all fours, leering with his eyes too wide open. He coughed and shook his head.
“You don't want to fight,” I told him. “You're giving away too much weight.”
He wanted to fight. He shot at me like a plane from a catapult, reaching for my knees in a diving tackle. I sidestepped and reached for his neck and took it into chancery. He scraped the dirt hard and got his feet under him enough to use his hands on me where it hurt. I twisted him around and heaved him a little higher. I took hold of my right wrist with my left hand and turned my right hipbone into him and for a moment it was a balance of weights. We seemed to hang there in the misty moonlight, two grotesque creatures whose feet scraped on the road and whose breath panted with effort.
I had my right forearm against his windpipe now and all the strength of both arms in it. His feet began a frenetic shuffle and he wasn’t panting any more. He was ironbound. His left foot sprawled off to one side and the knee went slack. I held on half a minute longer. He sagged on my arm, an enormous weight I could hardly hold up. Then I let go. He sprawled at my feet, out cold. I went to the car and got a pair of handcuffs out of the glove compartment and twisted his wrists behind him and snapped them on. I lifted him by the armpits and managed to drag him in behind the hedge, out of sight from the street. I went back to the car and moved it a hundred feet up the hill and locked it.
He was still out when I got back. I unlocked the door, dragged him into the house, shut the door. He was beginning to gasp now. I switched a lamp on. His eyes fluttered open and focused on me slowly.
I bent down, keeping out of the way of his knees and said: “Keep quiet or you’ll get the same and more of it. Just lie quiet and hold your breath. Hold it until you can't hold it any longer and then tell yourself that you have to breathe, that you’re black in the face, that your eyeballs are popping out, and that you’re going to breathe right now, but that you’re sitting strapped in the chair in the clean little gas chamber up in San Quentin and when you take that breath you're fighting with all your soul not to take it, it won’t be air you'll get, it will be cyanide fumes. And that’s what they call humane execution in our state now.”
“Go ---- yourself,” he said with a soft stricken sigh.
“You’re going to cop a plea, brother, don’t ever think you’re not. And you’re going to say just what we want you to say and nothing we don’t want you to say.”
“Go ---- yourself.”
“Say that again and I'll put a pillow under your head.”
His mouth twitched. I left him lying on the floor with his wrists shackled behind him and his cheek pressed into the rug and an animal brightness in his visible eye. I put on another lamp and stepped into the hallway at the back of the living room.

The all-id wrestling going on here in The Big Sleep is like watching Rod Hull going at it with Emu. On the other hand, the confusion wrought on the new Marlowe by Travis the bartender in a bar with a sign reading “Fagots—Stay Out” is fraught but measured, a matter of affective curiosity, as if Marlowe had taken a module at gender studies at UCLA:

Big fellow with hairy forearms and an elaborate tattoo on his left bicep showing a blue anchor entwined with red roses. I doubted he was ever a seaman, though. He was very popular with the “fagots,” who, despite the warning sign, kept on coming here ‑ because of the sign, maybe. He used to tell a funny story about Errol Flynn and something he did here at the bar one night with a pet snake he kept in a bamboo box, but I can’t remember the punch line …
Travis, not being an overly familiar sort, had given me the barest nod when I came in. I wondered if he knew my name. Probably not. He knew what I did for a living, I was pretty sure of that, though I didn’t remember him ever mentioning it. When the place wasn’t busy, he had a way of standing with his hands spread on the bar and his big square head lowered, gazing out through the open doorway into the street with a far-off look in his eye, as if he was remembering a long-lost love or a fight one time that he won. He didn’t say much. He was either dumb or very wise, I could never decide which. Either way, I liked him.

You loved him, more like. If the original Marlowe warred within Chandler’s version of the classic Irish binary of homophobe and homophile, we have now been offered a Marlowe for whom queerness is a fact of life, a question asked by his body that his mind cannot quite answer. This is genuinely affecting, the sweetest thing in the book. In Chandler’s Marlowe, sexuality has a purity of origin, he appears to be a genuinely Freudian prototype in that his weirdness comes from within, and has no environmental explanation; on the other hand, other characters (especially women) are erotically twisted because money has made them so. If women in The Big Sleep are sometimes robotic, erotomaniac, animalistic and nihilistic, the sense is that capitalism has made them that way; Eddie Mars’s wife, Silver-Wig, is even the colour of money. In this sense, Marlowe is also a highly conventional Christian author, locked into a postlapsarian narrative that rather counters the existential proddings found elsewhere; here women are robots or bestial, indeed serpentine:

I began to laugh. I laughed like an idiot, without control. Blonde Agnes was sitting up on the floor with her hands flat on the carpet and her mouth open and a wick of metallic blonde hair down over her right eye. Carmen was crawling on her hands and knees, still hissing.

Marlowe is not pretending to be mad here, this is the real thing, and this is also symptomatic of a Hitchcockian psychopathology in which the imagined murder of women is Chandler’s only way of dealing with them:

For a brief instant her face seemed to come to pieces, to become merely a set of features without form or control. Her mouth looked like the prelude to a scream. But only for an instant. The Sternwood blood had to be good for something more than her black eyes and her recklessness. I stood up and took the smoking cigarette from between her fingers and killed it in an ashtray. Then I took Carmen's little gun out of my pocket and laid it carefully, with exaggerated care, on her white satin knee. I balanced it there, and stepped back with my head on one side like a window-dresser getting the effect of a new twist of a scarf around a dummy’s neck.

This murder-ballad ranting is untraceable in The Black-Eyed Blonde, where a much more romantically avernal portraiture predominates:

She had a good smile, friendly, so far as it went, and a little lopsided in an attractively sardonic way. Her hair was blond and her eyes were black, black and deep as a mountain lake, the lids exquisitely tapered at their outer corners. A blonde with black eyes — that’s not a combination you get very often.

The archness of the last phrase ‑ “not a combination you get very often.” ‑ counters that enthrallment, the gag being that if you are going to find a combination like that anywhere else, then it will most likely be in a Chandler novel (as with Carmen Sternwood). Other books, and other books by Chandler, are absolutely fundamental to Banville-Black’s approach to writing Marlowe; this is hardly a surprise, and Chandler’s work itself was exemplary in its literary self-consciousness, and yet The Black-Eyed Blonde is perhaps more overtly literary than might have been expected or desired. Ultimately, without giving anything away, the solution to this mystery book lies in another mystery book. The archness amounts to a bloodlessness, and the book never quite sheds its tone of calculation.

The neutered tone of the new man-Marlowe summons the voice of Philp Roth’s post-sexual Nathan Zuckerman in The American Trilogy, and has a bit of the same Tiresian wisdom; Banville-Black follows a particular tendency in Chandler’s writing towards the Eliotic, which in turn offers an eroticism that is rather soggy and defeated:

Her white shoes were wet from the garden, and her ankles were thin and shapely, with deep scoops at the back, smooth and pale, like the inside of a seashell, between the bone and the tendon.

That is not to say that there is not a sexual encounter that the reader is asked to imagine, as chapter 13 fades out on a proposition and 14 awakes to a post-coital fug; the problem is that it has been so hard to believe that this Marlowe actually did the deed. Even he seems to find it a reach:

Now I lay on my back, with my face turned sideways on the pillow, staring at those roses. They looked as if they were painted with thick gobs of strawberry jam that subsequently dried up and lost its sheen. I’d just made love to one of the most beautiful women I’d ever been allowed to get my arms around, but nevertheless I wasn’t at ease. The fact was, Clare Cavendish was out of my league, and I knew it. She had class, she had money to burn, she was married to a polo player, and she drove an Italian sports car. What the hell was she doing in bed with me?

The other strange aspect of this is that Marlowe appears to equate wealth and social status here with “class”, which is far from the analysis that sustained The Big Sleep, as his marvellous invective against the flash Eddie Mars in that book indicates:

 

That’s just protective thinking. Once outside the law you’re all the way outside … You think he’s just a gambler. I think he’s a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops. He’s whatever looks good to him, whatever has the cabbage pinned to it. Don’t try to sell me on any high-souled racketeers. They don’t come in that pattern.

The didacticism of that Marlowe, his occasional rips of self-righteous rage, represents a vital element of the singularity of Chandler’s best work. The new version is utterly resigned to the corrupting power of money, as if he was living in the twenty-first century rather than the 1950s; while the other gets splenetic, this Marlowe goes flat when he talks about the outrageous privilege of wealth: “Los Angeles has its moments, if you’re rich and privileged enough to be on the places where they happen.” The point is well-enough made, but it doesn’t sing, and it certainly does not surprise. This brings us to the fundamental realisation of what is necessary to make this book feel like a success as a Marlowe novel. That is, we have to let go of Raymond Chandler and instead accept that this is a vision of Philip Marlowe enacted by an Irish novelist; armed with that knowledge, we can begin to believe the unbelievable about our hero. It also then becomes possible to enjoy the novel’s twenty-first century tics as signifiers of difference rather than as anachronisms or errors; so when Marlowe refers to cigarettes as “cancer sticks”, we are in the strange situation of hearing a hardboiled phrase that could easily have been coined by Marlowe, even if it wasn’t.

It has been remarked plenty of times that Chandler and PG Wodehouse attended Dulwich college within a decade of one another, but it has rarely been considered as more than a historical coincidence. A fundamental sympathy exists between their world views, both in terms of their quasi-feudal ethics and the psycho-sexual trauma that grown women present to them; but the most powerful expression of their mutuality is in style, which you have to imagine should be attributed to whoever it was taught them Latin at the end of the nineteenth century. Both Chandler and Wodehouse discover a peculiarly thorough range of possibilities in first-person narrative, and in this way the novels are founded in the principals of the dramatic monologue after Browning, that great engine of modernist performances of the self; added to this, dialogue is deployed to amplify the pathology of the self, but also to prove that nether Wooster or Marlowe are entirely or hopelessly locked into total disconnection (although much of the time, like the protagonists in Frost’s “Home Burial”, characters talk without really communicating). One may be an idiot, the other a misanthrope, but at least they know how to talk to people. Banville-Black’s Marlowe is more adept at the duetting than the soliloquising, but he has the odd bit of poetic flash, as in this instance when he channels Louis MacNeice’s “Snow” (“World is suddener than we fancy it / World is crazier and more of it than we think”):

Life is far more messy and disconnected than we let ourselves admit. Wanting things to make sense and be nice and orderly, we keep up making plots and forcing them on the way things really are. It’s one of our weaknesses, but we cling to it for dear life, since without it there’d be no life at all, dear or otherwise.

What is the difference between finding notes for a novel by Raymond Chandler as opposed to say, Nathaniel Hawthorne? If it is a matter of the notes as being of scholarly interest, then there is no difference; however, it is only with Chandler that a publisher would commission a writer to work those notes up into a novel. This rather implies that Chandler does not still have the high-canon authorial status that he coveted for his work; his genre always implies that the market will have its day. The hiring of Banville is an interesting decision in lots of ways, but there is also a whiff about the whole affair of a high-class franchise being kickstarted. The semi-glorious history of movie Marlowes has previously warned producers off such an enterprise, and for every memory-scorching performance by Bogart and Eliot Gould, you also get a below-par James Caan and a comatose Robert Mitchum. You wonder just how much more Marlowe has to give, and how much he ever had to offer. This brings us to the difference between the Dulwich old boys. Wodehouse’s hyper-productivity happened in part because he never agonised about the reception his books would receive beyond a popular one; out of this, he developed a truly outrageous virtuosity, a Mozartian perfection centred on pleasure. There is no need to augment the Wodehouse canon, because there is more than enough there already; with Chandler, the temptation will always be there to improve him, not least because the original artist was so raw, vulnerable and unfinished. The error is in identifying Chandler’s Marlowe with Bogart’s cool; what makes Marlowe unique is the raging melancholy that saw him enduring agonies of the mind and body that led to no sense of peace-in-particular, and that temper was Chandler’s, and Chandler’s alone.
10/03/2014

Michael Hinds is co-ordinator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies and Head of English at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin

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