The Black-Eyed Blonde – Benjamin Black

[This is a journal in two sections. I didn’t start reading the second section until I’d finished writing about the first, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

27 October 2015
Chapters 1-14 – to the first death
A Philip Marlowe novel written by John Banville? Can it ever be any more than a pastiche, like those James Bonds that people are writing now, or the new sequel to the Stieg Larsson The Girl With… franchise? I don’t know yet. So far, it’s plausible enough. Not plausible as in I believe any of it, but in terms of holding up as a Raymond Chandler pastiche. But I imagine that Banville, a serious literary novelist, must have something more than imitation on his mind. I’m spending as much time speculating on what that something might be as on the latest twist in the plot. So far the plot is thin, and I’m practically half-way through already.

We get the classic opening scene as the good-looking dame visits Marlowe’s office with a mysterious job for him. She is Clare Cavendish, daughter of a woman who has made a fortune in the perfume business, and he is fascinated by her. When his (fairly perfunctory) first investigations come to nothing he pays a visit to her seafront mansion and, after she’s told him more of the story, they end up kissing. I wonder whether there’s such a thing as trope-crawling, because that’s what Banville seems to be doing here. The iced tea the love interest is drinking is straight out of Double Indemnity (a film later referenced by Marlowe as he speaks, inevitably, to a young would-be starlet). She is sitting picturesquely in her big conservatory, a feature of perhaps the other most famous noir thriller of the 1940s, The Big Sleep. This is in Chapter 4, and that’s when I decided to give up on spotting the references. Life’s too short, somehow.

I’ll get back to the plot later, because by this time something else seemed to be more interesting. If a serious literary novelist – I must stop using that phrase – decides to spend time in the safe waters of a highly familiar genre, he’s either simply taking a break from the serious business of his usual work or he’s doing it to see what light his hip modern sensibility can bring to a detective caper apparently from the first half of last century. Even if he’s only looking for a holiday, he’s bound to be holding up the genre to some kind of scrutiny. Right from the start, as his narrator describes the good-looking woman just as the Marlowe of the 1940s and 50s would do it, I was wondering about established gender roles. If the dame’s visit to the office proceeds exactly according to the rules, so does Marlowe’s reaction. Is it just that Banville isn’t seeking anything new, or that he’s expecting his reader to notice that he is, perhaps deliberately, offering only tried and tested formulas?

Half-way through the novel I still don’t know the answer to that one. But features in a novel written in the 1940s or 50s that might be taken as a given, like a male narrator’s response to an attractive woman, have to be seen differently in the 21st Century. In fact, as the novel goes on there are different presentations of masculinity. (And femininity. I’ll come back to that later.) Banville very deliberately has Marlowe point out to us a homophobic – and, typically, misspelled – notice behind a bar that Marlowe visits early on in his investigations. The bartender, a former sportsman, shows just enough signs for our narrator to suspect that the notice might be aimed at people like him, and that he has to be very aware of the face he turns to the world.

And from then on, the reader (this reader, anyway) is looking for how Banville presents his male characters – or, which isn’t quite the same thing, how they present themselves. If Marlowe is the 1940s norm, how about the rich half-brother of the black-eyed blonde of the title? Money seems to have made him silly, somehow unfit for purpose – and it’s done something similar for her husband, with whom she has an ‘understanding’. He’ll let her get on with her life if she’ll let him live off the fortune made by her mother and get on with his own. And there are other bars or clubs, each with its own carefully curated characteristics. The landlord of the Irish-themed ‘pub’ speaks as though he’s just got off the boat from Ireland. There’s a phoney cockney place where Marlowe can make sarcastic comments about the roast beef of Old England… and there’s the upmarket country club run by Hanson, a man who lets Marlowe know he served in France during WW2, and whose bland charm could be hiding absolutely anything. The face these people allow the world to see is something Marlowe is clearly going to have to deal with very carefully indeed.

I’ll stick with the country club, because Banville seems to want his readers to be suspicious of everything about it. It’s after leaving it two months ago that Nico Peterson, the lover (or whatever) of Marlowe’s client, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Except – and the woman doesn’t mention this to Marlowe until their second meeting – she’s seen him within the past few days in San Francisco. Between these two meetings, Marlowe has visited Peterson’s house, and has been told of two Mexicans looking for him. Mexicans? Hit-and-run accident? The body, according to Hanson, was identified by the supposedly dead man’s sister, and he dismisses any idea of Peterson still being alive. But Marlowe can see that he is studiously keeping his real thoughts about the alleged sighting to himself.

And I’m back to presentation, identity. This is the man who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, who runs a joint purporting to be an exclusive club. It was set up by a philanthropist who likes to employ men who would otherwise find no place in society, old, or deaf, or not quite right in the head. Marlowe has noticed them, and is as cynical as you would expect about the owner’s altruism. One of them, in a sort of aside, says they are the lost boys and calls Hanson (or the owner) Captain Hook. What’s going on? Is the place just a cover for a drugs operation? What does Hanson know that he isn’t telling? How can we (or Marlowe, or anybody else) tell, when everybody seems to be hide everything about themselves behind carefully arranged stage props?

Marlowe goes back to the missing man’s house, and uses a stage prop he’s retained from his years in the DA’s office to open the door. And while he’s rooting around, who should appear but – who? It’s Peterson’s sister, as Marlowe realises from a photograph in the house. He is in the process of failing to create a plausible reason for his being there when the Mexicans arrive. They are such one-dimensional stereotypes that Banville has Marlowe make up names for them, Gomez and Lopez. After a bit of business, one of them knocks Marlowe out and, as he later discovers, takes the sister away.

There are some friendly, or not so friendly cops whose help Marlowe calls on at times, so conversations with them intersperse other conversations he has. Now I think of it, most of the novel is made up of meetings Marlowe has with one person after another and, as often as not, he spends his time calculating what it is the other person is covering up. With the starlet who had (or hadn’t) been one of Peterson’s protégés it’s no more than her unglamorous Midwest origins. With Clare Cavendish’s mother, the second proudly Irish character we’ve met in this novel written by an Irishman, it’s more complicated. She’s been careful about which of her married surnames she uses for her perfume brand, Langrish, but the persona she presents in the upmarket restaurant is fiercely Irish. Like Hanson, she tells Marlowe her credentials: her husband was killed in a gruesome sectarian execution, buried to his neck on a beach as the tide came in. Names, carefully guarded identities, echoes of the past. Marlowe is being given a hard time.

In the chapter I’ve just finished, Marlowe has been visited first by a cop who doesn’t like him but helps him out anyway and then, just after he’s left, by Clare Cavendish. They end up in bed – and she is very annoyed when she finds out what he hasn’t told him about Peterson’s house, the sister, the Mexicans…. He tries to reassure her that she needn’t be scared, but she seems to know better. She leaves, still angry – and then the cop telephones to let him know that the sister’s body has been found at a local reservoir. It’s the Lady in the Lake all over again.

3 November
Chapters 15-25 – to the end
It gets better. In fact, I enjoyed it as much as the novels by Raymond Chandler all those years ago. Banville stays strictly within the narrow parameters he’s set for himself – there isn’t much that couldn’t have appeared in a Chandler novel – and yet he covers the sort of ground he deals with in his ostensibly more serious fiction. There’s the self-disgust of the male narrator past his prime, but wryly self-knowing rather than tortured to the point of suicide. There are the unpredictable quicksands of sexual relationships, but regarded with a kind of weary stoicism instead of existential angst. I much prefer his approach in this novel. There’s more than a nod towards existential despair but, well, we know it’s only fiction, and I could never forget that the Man Booker-winning The Sea was a fiction too. Identity, loss, the unknowability of other people…. These are all here, but without either author or narrator taking themselves too seriously. I could become a fan of John Banville when he writes in this guise.

What to say? The plot, which had seemed thin, becomes a little more convoluted. In a good way. It’s the Mexicans who have tortured then killed Peterson’s sister, which is a big mistake on their part. Banville likes to keep surprise revelations up his sleeve – who wouldn’t. in his position? – and it turns out that the father of the Peterson siblings is Canning, the rich and powerful man who owns the country club. He might have more or less disowned them, but they’re still his kids. So the next time Marlowe sees the murderers one of them is already dead and the other is dying from his injuries. These were inflicted by the man that Marlowe remembers from his having served tea to him and Hanson the first time he visited. He’s already told us that this second visit isn’t a pleasant one – I’m paraphrasing – and when he sees Lopez and Gomez he’s just woken up from a Mickey Finn that Hanson has slipped into his drink. Like them, he’s tied to a chair on the edge of the swimming pool….

Hanson is another of those rich characters who presents a carefully constructed persona. We’re getting used to this by now – Leo Hendricks, a local casino owner and, as it transpires, drug baron has already picked Marlowe up in his big Rolls Royce and asked him sweetly threatening questions about Nico in his fake British accent – so when Hanson’s boss is nice to his trussed-up victim we know he’s just playing games. Soon Marlowe is being half-drowned by the so-called butler, and it’s only by way of some clever and not necessarily credible sleight of hand that he manages to catch the thug off-balance. He ends up getting his over-sized gun off him and fires off an almost random shot that gets Jeeves, as he likes to call him, in the knee. The loss of blood is so bad the man dies of it in hospital. So it goes.

The point is, everybody thinks Marlowe has information that in fact he doesn’t. Hendricks, Canning and, most awkwardly, the cops. Nobody believes him when he says he knows no more than they do, and it gets him into a lot of scrapes. But it’s a great wheeze for an author: by keeping his narrator guessing he can keep us guessing too. Marlowe would tell us if he knew, wouldn’t he?

Well, not necessarily. He isn’t an unreliable narrator, but he wants to tell it how it felt for him. He might know the whole story by the time he’s writing about it, but it’s the business of even the most reliable of narrators to hold back. There wouldn’t be a novel – and I might be talking about any conventionally presented novel ever written, not just thrillers – if he laid all his cards out on the table from the beginning. The black-eyed blonde of the title is someone who, as we might have guessed, constantly holds back far more than she’s ever tells him. But we don’t know that for certain at the beginning, and there’s no time for ‘If I’d known then’-type teasers when you need to pique the reader’s interest. Only once did I spot Marlowe deliberately holding something back. He tells us that the suitcase eventually passed to him by Nico Peterson is one he’s seen before – this is some chapters before the end – but he doesn’t tell us that this solves the whole mystery for him. He keeps the identity of the owner a secret from us, so that for these final chapters he’s ahead of us. It becomes just another part of the game – and anyway, why shouldn’t Marlowe hold back, just like everybody else in the novel?

I should fill in some plot details. Luckily, Banville has Marlowe do this for us some time before the final reveal. If I could find the page I’d copy it out, but you know how it is. Hendricks picks Marlowe up because he had been expecting a drop from Nico Peterson when the supposed accident happened. The Mexicans weren’t sent by him, but by a similar character in Mexico, ‘Mendy’ Menendez. Like Hendricks, he had heard about the sighting of Peterson and they assumed Peterson’s sister was in on it. She was, but only so far as to agree to identify the body that wasn’t her brother’s. In fact, the dead man was one of the drifters at the country club, supplied by Hanson. Peterson had found himself a higher bidder for the drugs in the suitcase, and had persuaded Hanson to go along with it. Canning knew nothing of this, but is enough of a crook to be able to round up the Mexicans and make plain his annoyance with them. They know nothing, of course, which is why Jeeves’ torture gets him and his boss nowhere. Canning has Marlowe half-drowned for the same reason, and would no doubt have let his thug kill him too.

Enter Nico Peterson and that suitcase. He meets Marlowe at the main railway station, tells him about the plan that only went wrong, he insists, because the dealer in San Francisco was shot dead by his jealous wife. You couldn’t make it up. So… could Marlowe take the suitcase to Hanson for a $100 fee? Marlowe takes the suitcase but not the money, and Peterson tells him he’ll be on the next boat to South America. Later we see Marlowe dropping an envelope into a post-box. It’s addressed to the police, and contains a key to a safety deposit box in the station. Which leaves just one loose end to be tied up. What’s Clare Cavendish’s connection with all this? She would never have had any connection with Peterson – in the chapter he appears in he’s the whiney spoilt kid doing whatever squalid deals he can find to keep himself in the manner to which he’s accustomed – so… what’s going on?

Marlowe knows, and phones her to tell her to get ‘him’ to get a flight to LA so they can all meet to clear it up. All through the novel there have been references to another character who’s very hard to pin down, Terry Lennox. He has no role, we think: he’s just an old friend from Chandler’s The Long Goodbye whose supposed suicide in that novel was faked. He now lives in Mexico… and he turns out to be working with Menendez. It was his suitcase that Marlowe recognised, and Lennox has only agreed to meet (I think) because he thinks he’ll get it back. He is Clare Cavendish’s lover, the one for whom she’ll do all those things she’s done. (Marlowe, inevitably, wants her to reassure him that she didn’t only sleep with him as part of the plan. She’s a nice enough person not to disabuse him.) Marlowe tells him the cops have the suitcase… so Lennox will have to go back to face the music with Menendez, yes? Well, no. Clare’s useless brother, an addict we’ve seen almost dying of a heroin overdose a few chapters back, blames Lennox for getting him hooked. After some fumbling, he shoots him. Marlowe finds it hard to mourn for his one-time friend. He was never honest, but the man that Marlowe knew would never have done that to a vulnerable young man, and would not be shipping suitcases of heroin across the border.

I’ve missed things out, but you get the picture. The world is an ugly place, Marlowe is nursing bruises and an almost permanent hangover, and nobody comes out of it well. Except, perhaps, for Marlowe himself. He has no illusions about his own worth but, despite everything (and despite the suspicions of the police) he always does the right thing. Heroin trafficking is bad, full stop. Working for crooks is bad. Any kind of exploitation… etc. Like Chandler’s original, he’s just an ordinary guy trying to make a living in a dishonest world. If he might sometimes seem cynical, well, that’s just the face he has to turn to the world if he’s going to get any work at all.

And the rest? Early on, I was wondering how different a ‘Philip Marlowe’ novel written in the 21st Century might be from one written in the early 1950s. The stuff I’ve been saying about identity isn’t so different from the ending of The Long Goodbye, when a Mexican tells Marlowe he’s seen Lennox die in a hotel room. Fine. Except Marlowe is pretty sure that the man telling him this is Lennox himself, having had some highly professional work done on his face. Banville carries this on in all sorts of indirect ways throughout his own novel, and I don’t need to say any more about that. But he carries it on far more directly when Lennox makes his entrance. The plastic surgery, the multiple aliases – and, ultimately, the corrupting power of easy money.

The longer the novel goes on, the easier it is to forget all those questions and simply enjoy the ride. Banville’s imitation of Chandler’s hard-boiled language is as good as any I’ve ever read, and the plot, once we’re past that half-way point, bowls along nicely. Sure, Banville doesn’t want us to forget entirely that he’s a serious writer. There are the literary allusions (not least to Marlowe’s own surname), the expert-sounding references to great chess games of the past – and the often beautiful descriptions of a sultry evening or an unexpected rainstorm in LA. I’m not in the business of recommending novels, but I’ll be buying this for more than one person this Christmas.

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