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Thu March 6, 2014

Even In New Hands, Detective Philip Marlowe Rings True

My wife and I recently moved to Los Angeles. To prepare, I reread a handful of the Philip Marlowe novels by the great Raymond Chandler, from The Big Sleep to The Little Sister. Chandler, who died in 1959, was a forefather of the modern detective novel. I've been a Chandler fan for years, but I also wanted to reread him because I knew I'd be reviewing a new Chandler book — written by somebody else.

As Marlowe himself says in Chandler's 1953 novel The Long Goodbye, "there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself." Let's just say I was ready to be disappointed. Instead, I've just finished The Black-Eyed Blonde, and I'm wondering how on Earth it rings so true. For Chandler fans — for fans of detective fiction, in general — it's a treat.

The main reason is the author, Benjamin Black. Black's the writer behind the bestselling Quirke thrillers, about a grouchy pathologist in 1950s Dublin. Black also happens to be the pen name of the Irish novelist John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2005 book, The Sea. As a novelist, Banville's known for his distinctive voice. As a crime writer, Black is credited for his subtle mysteries. In The Black-Eyed Blonde, we get both.

The story picks up from the end of The Long Goodbye. The setup is typical Chandlerian: a beautiful woman needs help finding a missing boyfriend, and Marlowe's just the sucker to help. The trouble is, the man's not just gone astray. He died in a car accident two months before our story starts. Yet our client recently spotted him walking down the street. From there, we're in and out of L.A. country clubs, taverns, and fist-fights as Marlowe tries to figure out what's really going on.

Half the pleasure of this book, at least for a Chandler fan, is to notice Black getting the little things right. Marlowe is always fast with a joke, but reluctant with his gun. He drinks too much, he's restless. And Los Angeles is captured precisely — its morning blues, its evening breezes. Line after line of dialogue sound accurate for Marlowe, without seeming too much like pastiche. "Sometimes," he says, "I think I should lay off cigarettes for good, but if I did that, I'd have no hobbies except chess, and I keep beating myself at chess."

Unfortunately, the book is still a bit of a let-down. Black's characters don't feel lived-in. The intrigue lacks wrinkles, and the mystery proceeds too smoothly — it doesn't have enough dead ends. Chandler was a master of the frustrating moments in police work, when time stands still and the southern California sun beats down on Marlowe's neck. But against a dozen other detective novels on my desk, I'll take a Raymond Chandler any day of the week, even when it's written by somebody else — assuming that somebody is Benjamin Black.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A little California reading for you now. It features that great California detective Philip Marlowe, the one dreamed up by author Raymond Chandler. Our occasional book critic Rosecrans Baldwin recently moved to Los Angeles so in preparation, he read the 1939 book "The Big Sleep," and the 1949 book "The Little Sister." And Rosecrans read a new novel about Philip Marlowe.

No, Raymond Chandler is not churning out new material from the grave. This one is written by someone else.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: I've been a Raymond Chandler fan for years, but as detective Philip Marlowe himself says in "The Long Goodbye," there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself. Let's just say I was ready to be disappointed by this new Marlowe book. Instead, I'm wondering how "The Black-Eyed Blonde" rings so true. The main reason is the author, Benjamin Black.

He's the writer of the bestselling Quirke thrillers, about a grouchy pathologist in 1950s Dublin. Black also happens to be the alter ego of the Irish novelist John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel, "The Sea." As Banville, he's known for his distinctive voice; as Black, for his subtle mysteries. In "The Black-Eyed Blonde," we get both.

The setup is typical Marlowe, a beautiful woman needs to find a missing boyfriend, and he's just the sucker to help. The trouble is, the boyfriend's not just gone astray. He died in a car accident two months before our story starts. Yet our client recently spotted him walking down the street. From there, we're in and out of L.A. country clubs, taverns and fist-fights as Marlowe tries to figure out what's really going on.

Half the pleasure of this book, at least for a Chandler fan, is to notice Black getting the little things right. Marlowe is always fast with a joke, but reluctant with his gun. He drinks too much, he's restless. Line after line of Marlowe's inner monologues sound right on. Sometimes, Marlowe says, I think I should lay off cigarettes for good, but if I did that, I'd have no hobbies except chess, and I keep beating myself at chess.

Unfortunately, even though the details are great, the book is still a bit of a let-down. Black's characters don't feel lived-in. The intrigue lacks wrinkles, and the mystery goes a little too smoothly. Raymond Chandler was a master of the frustrating moments in police work, when time stands still and the hot California sun beats down on Marlowe's neck.

But against a dozen other detective novels on my desk, I'll still take a Raymond Chandler any day of the week, even when it's written by Benjamin Black.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And the book is "The Black-Eyed Blonde," by Benjamin Black. It was reviewed by author Rosecrans Baldwin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.