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The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel, by Benjamin Black, Mantle, RRP£16.99/Henry Holt & Co, RRP$27, 320 pages
It began with a book with a note. “A new Philip Marlowe mystery,” the message read, “can you find out more?”
Marlowe. I rolled the name around my tongue and washed it down with a slug of whiskey. Wasn’t he the private dick who did Raymond Chandler’s dirty work back in the day? I looked at the book, a fancy hardback affair: The Black-Eyed Blonde, by some stiff called Benjamin Black. I lit a cigarette and went to work. A call to the LA County coroner confirmed Chandler bit the big one in 1959. Poor sap, he didn’t stand a chance. None of us do. But there was no record of Marlowe’s death. Hell, the gumshoe seemed immortal. I gunned the Packard and drove to the library. You can find out a lot in a library so long you keep quiet about it.
Sure enough, I picked up Marlowe’s trail in the crime section. After Chandler snuffed it he lay low before palling up with Robert B Parker, a pulp hand who Boswelled a pair of Marlovian adventures in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then – nothing, until this Black cove. A bit more digging and I hit pay dirt. Black was a pseudonym for another writer, John Banville.
I let out a low whistle. The librarian, a dame with don’t-come-hither eyes, shot me a glare. This Banville character was a piece of work: hired Irish muscle with heavyweight credentials, including the Man Booker prize for The Sea (2005). It figured. Marlowe always liked his chess and his books. Chandler had a thing for ritzy writers too, French snoots banging on about existentialism. Me, the only “-ism” I know comes with alcohol attached.
It turned out there was a lot of that in The Black-Eyed Blonde – booze, I mean, not existentialism. Good. I fired up a cigarette and ignored the librarian. It seemed friend Marlowe had got mixed up with yet another heiress, a knockout lady from a tony LA neighbourhood searching for a missing male acquaintance, some beefcake she thought was dead but whom she’d seen in the street.
“I tootled around the corner ... ” Hang on, that didn’t sound like the Marlowe I knew. But this did: “That smile: it was like something she had set a match to a long time ago and then left to smoulder on by itself.” The usual routines were present: the cosh on the head, the Mickey Finn in the drink. I was glad Banville chose to nix Chandler’s soft-boiled decision to marry Marlowe off in Playback (1958), the pair’s last outing together. Instead the new book takes 1953’s The Long Goodbye as its starting point, with Marlowe as he should be – the solitary detective.
Clever bird, this Banville, I thought to myself, tilting my fedora back. He’s got Marlowe back on his feet all right. I shook out a cigarette, poured another whiskey and read to the end. The Black-Eyed Blonde is an open-and-shut case.