Philip Marlowe is back on the mean streets of LA: Private eye by icon of American Literature Raymond Chandler resurrected in new novel

The detective has been revived by crime writer Benjamin Black, aka John Banville in 'The Black-Eyed Blonde'. Neely Tucker meets Chandler’s heir

Clare Cavendish. Irish dame, gorgeous, loaded, living in early 1950s LA.

Got a husband and a boyfriend. The first one is no good and louting about. The second is no good and can’t be found. The lady wouldn’t mind getting rid of the first but wants the second one back.

A woman like this, a situation like this – she can’t go to the cops.

Philip Marlowe, private eye, that’s the ticket she needs – except that Marlowe’s creator, legendary LA novelist Raymond Chandler, took the Big Sleep express more than half a century back. What’s a fictional girl to do?

Enter Irish writer John Banville, the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist who also turns out highly regarded crime novels under the pen name Benjamin Black. The Chandler estate hired him to revive Marlowe. So, in the just-released The Black-Eyed Blonde, Banville/Black/Chandler’s ghost has Cavendish and Marlowe stand up, cast shadows and wrestle with the truth, treachery and one another.

It’s vintage LA, toots: the hot summer, rain on the asphalt, the woman with the lipstick, cigarette ash and alienation, V8 coupes, tough guys, snub-nosed pistols, the ice melting in the bourbon; the City of Angels as it probably never existed.

“The worst thing you could do,” Banville says over lunch, his soft Dublin lilt falling faintly on the ear, “is write a solemn, serious Chandler homage... I had fun with all of it. I hope that communicates itself.”

He’s 68, slim, not tall, wearing the author-on-book-tour uniform of slacks, dress shirt, tie and sports coat. Sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Lombardy late last week, he orders a light lunch and a glass of Chardonnay.

White hair, soft-spoken at first (you almost have to lean forward) – then he gets that mischievous twinkle and is in full swing as your charming Irish novelist and storyteller, the uncle or granddad you always wish you’d had.

This thing he’s doing, a new Marlowe novel? It’s not a trifle.

Raymond Chandler is an icon of American Literature. He started writing late in life, after his business career collapsed (due in part to the Depression, in part to his drinking) but did as much as anybody to create the now-ubiquitous hard-boiled genre. The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely. Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in the film The Big Sleep, which became a staple of cinema; Chandler co-wrote the screenplay to Double Indemnity, which did the same.

His books were so good – and Marlowe such an archetype of the loner detective, pursuing justice on his own terms – that people have  had a hard time leaving it alone, like that good bourbon in the decanter in the kitchen.

John Banville was selected by the Raymond Chandler estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel (The Washington Post) John Banville was selected by the Raymond Chandler estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel (The Washington Post)
One of Chandler’s literary descendants, Robert B. Parker, was hired in the 1990s to finish Poodle Springs, the novel that Chandler was working on when he died. Parker then  did another one from scratch. And there was an anthology of Marlowe short stories by a  collection of writers.

Not everybody loved those things. A lot of not everybody. A lot of it was the idea that Marlowe and Chandler should be left in their long Los Angeles twilight.

Two decades passed.

Meanwhile, Banville was working as a journalist in Dublin, writing one poetically dense novel after another and building an international reputation. Today, he’s one of the most decorated novelists on the planet. The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 over writers such as Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee, Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan. There’s the Franz Kakfa Prize, the Irish PEN Award, the Guinness Peat Aviation Book Award (one of Europe’s richest prizes), the Lannan Literary Award for fiction and – you get the idea.

“The Banville books have a serious intellect and a great sensuality running through them,” says Molly McCloskey, a novelist and Professor of creative writing at George Washington University. An American who has lived in Ireland since 1989, she interviewed Banville on stage at the university last week. These books convey “an appreciation and wonder at the world around us”, she says. “The prose is capable of achieving the potency of poetry.”

By contrast, his Benjamin Black novels are moody, atmospheric affairs, set in Dublin in the 1950s. Vengeance, Christine Falls, Holy Orders – they all follow Quirke, a 6ft 6in-tall pathologist who winds up in a series of unsavoury events. “Fog, coal grit, whiskey fumes and stale cigarette smoke, these are the atmospherics of Benjamin Black’s Dublin,” Banville writes on his website.

So when his agent and a representative of the Chandler estate suggested writing a Philip Marlowe novel, Banville didn’t really blink.

“Richness of texture” is what Chandler was about, Banville says, and he thought he could probably do that.

Like Chandler before him, Banville explores the seedy side of LA (Alamy) Like Chandler before him, Banville explores the seedy side of LA (Alamy)
Early last summer, Banville read through some of Chandler’s classics and watched The Big Sleep as a refresher course. He wrote The Black-Eyed Blonde over three or four months, about the same pace at which he writes his other crime novels, finishing in September.

One thing he did not do was go to Los  Angeles – a city he’s visited only a few times – to soak up the feel, consult maps, get the right number of stories for the right buildings, things like that. Sacrilege?

Chandler was no stickler for LA topography, either, he says, and he took the same licence. One of Banville’s proofreaders was Candice Bergen, a friend and LA native, and he says that the actress kept messaging him with corrections about the city’s details. “I said, ‘It’s a book of fiction, not a travelogue’, ” he recounts, laughing. “I don’t research. I make it up.”

The results are Chandleresque, sure, but you can see Banville’s sense of fun. Chandler was born in Chicago but lived in Britain for years and “fancied himself an English gentleman”, Banville says.

So, in Blonde, LA’s most famous detective is something of an expert on ye olde country. He knows what the dying Oscar Wilde said about the wallpaper in his room (“one of us will have to go”) and detests a club owner’s “phony British accent”. He can tell you about a “cottage loaf” of English bread, observes that a woman has the voice of “an Irish longshoreman”, and knows the way a roast beef sandwich is served “down Lambeth way”, but he’s not quite sure if it’s the Irish or the English who tend to take their whiskey “with water, no ice” (the Irish, says his femme fatale).

Here’s Banville’s Marlowe, walking into a cheap LA bar:

“Lanigan’s was one of those pretend Irish places with shamrocks painted on the mirror behind the bar and photographs of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara... Among a shelf of bottles was a quart of Bushmills wearing a tam-o’-shanter. Scotland, Ireland, what’s the difference?”

Marlowe sits down in this joint and is floored when he hears the bartender “whistling the tune of ‘Mother Machree’ – he was, I could barely believe it. Maybe he was paid to do it, bringing the true lilt of the Old Sod to the City of the Angels.”

Raymond Chandler, centre, at a party in London in 1958 (Getty) Raymond Chandler, centre, at a party in London in 1958 (Getty)
But most tongue-in-cheek may be the scene in which a Mafia don is taking Marlowe on a drive along Cahuenga, then making a turn on to Chandler Boulevard.

“Nice street, Chandler,” Marlowe observes. “Nothing mean about it: it’s broad and clean and well-lighted at night.”

Cahuenga and Chandler are real thoroughfares, but Banville slips the latter in as a shout-out to the old man himself. “Nothing mean” is a play on the oft-repeated description that Chandler wrote about “the mean streets of LA”. And “clean and well-lighted”, as any English major can tell you, is a riff on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

“I like Marlowe,” Banville is saying, talking about how he got to know the man in the course of writing the book.

Come now, we’ve got time, why not another Chardonnay while we talk this down? The  afternoon spills out ahead.

“Marlowe, he’s old-fashioned,” Banville continues, settling in. “He would have fit in at the Knights of the Round Table. He believes that nobility is still possible... he’s an unreconstructed romantic, which I suppose I still am.”

Ray Chandler’s LA. It’s still hard to see it clearly, that teardrop of affection in the eye.

To buy ‘The Black-Eyed Blonde’, by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt & Company, rrp£16.99), for £14.99 free P&P, call 08430 600030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

© The Washington Post

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own