Rupert Cornwell: The return of Philip Marlowe PI

Out of America: The guardians of Raymond Chandler's estate have authorised a Booker winner to bring the author's hero back to life
  • @IndyVoices

My first reaction when I saw the news was, is nothing sacred? Philip Marlowe, the greatest of all fictional private eyes, the creation of Raymond Chandler, arguably the greatest noir writer of them all, is being brought back to life, in a mystery written by the Irish novelist John Banville that is to be published next year. The venture has the blessing of the Chandler estate. But, even so, isn't this like someone commissioning a sequel to Hamlet and sticking Shakespeare's name on it? On second thoughts, though, why the hell not?

After all, this sort of thing isn't new. Sherlock Holmes has been reinvented dozens of times, while there have been three post-Mario Puzo additions to the "Godfather" series. The undisputed champion of artificial literary immortality, of course, is James Bond. Ian Fleming wrote 14 Bond books – not bad, but dwarfed by the avalanche that has followed. Later 007 scribes include novelists as distinguished as Kingsley Amis and Sebastian Faulks, not to mention John Gardner who alone penned 16. We've had a "Young Bond" series, as well as three volumes of the secret diaries of Miss Moneypenny, M's secretary with the unrequited crush on her boss's star agent, plus a cinematic franchise that will probably still be churning out Bond movies in 2200. If the punters want it, what's wrong with that?

If anything, yearning for a Philip Marlowe fix is even more understandable. Chandler produced only seven Marlowe novels, eight if you count Poodle Springs, only four chapters of which are the great man's own. The book was completed 30 years after he died, in 1989, by Robert B Parker, a Chandler fan and a notable crime writer in his own right. Two years after that, Parker then had a shot to recreate Chandler with Perchance to Dream, authorised by the estate as a sequel to The Big Sleep. The venture, however, was not a success, and that seemed to be that for Marlowe – until Banville's arrival on the scene.

Incidentally, moreover, fans of the hard-boiled noir should count themselves lucky with Chandler. Dashiell Hammett, the acknowledged father of the genre, produced only five novels, and just one featuring Sam Spade, his most famous character and forerunner of Marlowe (so much so that both were played in the movies by Humphrey Bogart).

The problem isn't so much resurrecting Chandler as doing justice to him. During his life he regarded his novels as pulp fiction, churned out by a hack who had to make a living somehow. "If they had been much better," he once wrote, "they would not have been published." He and his fellow thriller writers sometimes tried to break out of the formula, "but we usually got caught and sent back". Today, he is universally venerated.

Chandler is a far more accomplished writer, stylistically far richer, than Conan Doyle or Fleming. For me, Faulk's 2008 Bond offering, Devil May Care, is better than anything the real Fleming produced. Banville, on the other hand, has a job on his hands to avoid the fate of Parker, who, after Perchance to Dream, declared himself finished with the Chandler experiment: "I don't want to spend the rest of my life writing some other guy's books."

But Banville could be just the man to provide a Marlowe fix. Irish-born, he's a novelist and screenwriter who's won the Booker prize, and under the pseudonym Benjamin Black has written five well-received crime thrillers. His style is crisp and limpid, and if he can convey the decadent, sinister LA of the 1940s half as well as he does Dublin, we're in for a treat.

And it's oddly fitting that someone from our islands should pick up the Marlowe torch. Yes, Chandler will forever be remembered as the poet of a vanished Los Angeles. But he has a significant Anglo-Irish connection. He lived in England from the age of 12 to 24, was educated in south-east London at Dulwich College (whose famous alumni include P G Wodehouse, seven years Chandler's senior), and spent many a summer holiday near Waterford, Ireland, with his mother's relatives. He even acquired British citizenship, and was a reporter on the Daily Express, before returning to the US for good in 1912. Banville, in a sense, is making the journey in reverse.

Today's thriller writers paint a very different City of Angels. Chandler homed in on the spoiled and troubled rich, while Michael Connelly – his closest spiritual successor and creator of the disillusioned but incorruptible LAPD detective Harry Bosch – deals primarily with the darker, twisted souls who washed up in the sun- and sin-drenched megalopolis on the Pacific Coast when the boom was over. But Connelly, too, is a huge admirer of Chandler, and in his solitariness and fundamental decency, Bosch resembles Philip Marlowe.

Now, Banville/Black will reset the clock, back to Chandler's LA of seven decades ago. He promises a "slightly surreal, or hyper-real" atmosphere for the novel, to be based in Marlowe's old stamping ground of Bay City, a thinly disguised Santa Monica, in which the private detective's former comrade, the police inspector Bernie Ohls, will also make his return. And our Chandler stand-in has an advantage that the recreators of Holmes, Bond and the Corleones did not. The author may be changing, but the first person narrator remains the same: Marlowe.

So, again, why not? In the worst case, Banville/Black bombs, leaving us to turn back to the original and be reminded of its greatness. Or Marlowe reborn is a hit, bringing a jolt of fresh pleasure to older fans, while a new generation will want to discover Chandler for themselves. And at least no one's trying to pretend they're Chandler when they're not. Which is more than can be said for that truly pernicious modern publishing trend whereby big-name authors, these days not so much writers but industrial brands, have other people write their books for them. That really is sacrilege.