The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel
I’m going to try not to gush while describing THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE, but it’s going to be difficult. Benjamin Black --- the pen name utilized by the better known and frequently honored John Banville --- undertook what easily could have become a thankless task by agreeing to pen a new Philip Marlowe novel. Through his iconic character, Raymond Chandler launched a thousand books (at least) while irrevocably linking author and creator with what has come to be known as hard-boiled detective fiction. To succeed in this endeavor, Black had to capture Chandler’s voice (set forth in Marlowe’s first-person narrative) and the nuances of Marlowe’s character. He has done that --- and extremely well. THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE reads like a Chandler novel and perhaps (blasphemy alert!) like one of his best.
Clare Cavendish is the black-eyed blonde of the piece, a tall, slender heiress to a million-dollar perfume business who has Marlowe’s attention even before she walks into his office. Mrs. Cavendish wants Marlowe to find a handsome but scurrilous rake named Nico Peterson, who has suddenly absented himself from her life. Marlowe quickly discovers that Peterson is dead, having been killed in a hit-and-run incident. When confronted with this information, Mrs. Cavendish acknowledges that she is aware of these circumstances, and even saw Peterson’s body immediately after his death. The problem, from her standpoint, is that she caught a fleeting glimpse of him on a San Francisco street some months later.
"Chandler aficionados will flock to THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE, as should anyone who ever enjoyed a private-eye novel, however peripherally."
Marlowe is flat out smitten with the lovely Clare Cavendish, who makes it clear to him practically from the jump that her marriage does not impede her social life, given that she and her husband, a kept fop who plays polo professionally, have what is variously described as an “understanding” or an “arrangement.” It is the search for Peterson, however, that occupies the majority of THE BLACK-EYED GIRL, and Marlowe is but one of several who are interested in locating the supposedly dearly departed victim, though Marlowe is by far the most benevolent. Indeed, Marlowe, who at least attempts to follow a moral code --- what he refers to as “standards” --- is in the eye of a quiet but dangerous hurricane, surrounded by a swirling cast of strange characters. At one point, Marlowe asks himself, rhetorically, how it happens that a life of crime breeds so many genuine oddballs.
Almost everyone he encounters --- from his acquaintances in law enforcement to the unfortunate downtrodden employees of an exclusive nightclub for the rich and famous --- have some sort of discernible flaw, immediate to all who behold them except, possibly, for themselves. It eventually becomes clear what it is that Peterson had (or has) that everyone wants, yet it is the journey along the way that makes the ticket to THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE worth purchasing.
Black is an absolute joy to read. And while his impressive series of Quirke novels reflect his Irish nationality (as one might certainly expect), his ability to create Marlowe’s street- tough but noble American voice is amazing. Chandler aficionados will flock to THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE, as should anyone who ever enjoyed a private-eye novel, however peripherally.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 14, 2014