Benjamin Black and Raymond Chandler are not the same person. To begin with, Chandler, one of the great American novelists of the 20th Century and author of the noir classics The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, Farewell, My Lovely and The Little Sister, has been taking his rest in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, California for more than 55 years now.
But Black, an Irish author who is very much with us, performs such a satisfying and successful incarnation of Chandler’s sensibility and style in his new mystery novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, that it is almost possible to pretend that Chandler himself is back among the living, or at the very least employing Black as his amanuensis from beyond the veil.
It’s a lot harder, on the other hand, to imagine that Black and John Banville are the same person, though in this case they really are. Banville, when he isn’t writing mystery novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black, is a high-literary novelist escutcheoned with awards, encomiums and comparisons to Proust. He won the Man Booker Prize for his most famous novel, The Sea, which is described worryingly on the back cover of the paperback edition as “luminous”, “elegiac”, and “gorgeously written”.
However, there’s nothing about The Sea, an oppressively impressionistic story about a middle-aged Irish widower reliving his childhood, that resembles the hard, flat light of The Black-Eyed Blonde‘s Southern California setting, or the dank and whiskey-soaked ’50s-era Dublin of Black’s crime-novel trilogy centering on an alcoholic pathologist named Quirke.
The difficulty in connecting Banville and Black isn’t so much that “Black” is merely a genre writer of “cheap fiction” (Banville’s own description of his mystery writing) who would hardly be capable of writing “luminous” and “elegiac” prose, but rather the opposite: that Banville – at least on the evidence of The Sea – seems hardly capable of essaying the adamantine specificity required of any excellent mystery novelist. For the hard truth is that The Sea, though infinitely more honored than his Benjamin Black novels, is a nebulous and only intermittently satisfying experience. It’s the gauze to the Black-Eyed Blonde‘s open wound.
If one of the responsibilities of a novelist is to evoke a world through the eyes of its characters and place their actions in some sort of moral context, The Black-Eyed Blonde succeeds admirably. Like Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, Black’s own version of Marlowe in The Black-Eyed Blonde is a battered, world-weary moralist who takes on a missing-person case on behalf of the titular character, a beautiful and elegant woman who is Not All She Seems.
If the above description seems like The Black-Eyed Blonde is built on certain genre conventions, well, it is; it is, after all, a skillful imitation of one of the inventors of the genre in question. But as Black’s version of Phillip Marlowe tracks down the missing man, the surprises along the way are more than fair compensation. The missing man, very briefly the black-eyed blonde’s boyfriend, has died in a car accident, and yet shortly thereafter, the blonde spots him walking down the street. This is only the first of a thudding series of shocks and complications that Marlowe battles his way through, disdaining along the way moral compromises and bribes, before the story reaches a downbeat but thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
The writing itself is filled with little surprises, too. On a hot, dry day, Black’s Marlowe notes, “(a) cricket soared out of the dry grass beside us like a clown being shot from the mouth of a cannon.” Perfect! When Marlowe lowers himself into an armchair, “(i)t was so deep my knees nearly gave me an uppercut.”
And consider the lovely way that Black’s Marlowe describes a Southern California night: “It was a clear, cool night, and one big star was hanging low in the sky and throwing a long stiletto of light down into the heart of the Hollywood Hills. Bats were out too, squeaking and flickering like scraps of charred paper from a fire.”
Admittedly, moments of stylistic felicity are a very narrow basis upon which to judge a novel – and this is not intended to be a comprehensive review of Banville’s The Sea, which in any event is more of a meditation that a coherent narrative – but the prose in The Sea, so honored and so “luminous,” is actually fairly awful. The biggest problem – and I would imagine that this is because Banville, unlike his alter-ego Black, is not beholden to the demands of a tightly structured plot – feels it necessary to vamp at every moment in the story, showing off his ability to select, and hold up for inspection, and then reject, endless qualifiers before choosing not to settle on any one in particular.
Here are a few examples from The Sea, among them some that are unintentionally comical:
“As he turned back to the house his eye caught mine and he winked. He did not do it in the way that adults usually did, at once arch and ingratiating. No, this was a comradely, conspiratorial wink, masonic, almost…jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.”
Let’s see: Comradely, conspiratorial, masonic, jaunty, intimate and satanic (though faintly so!) That’s quite a burden for a wink to bear!
All of this qualification and throat clearing, intended I suppose to demonstrate Banville’s fine sensibility, and how much energy and attention he and his narrator bring to capturing the quotidian but psychologically revealing details of our existence, actually accomplishes little beyond reinforcing for the reader the prejudice that high-literary novels are supposed to spin their wheels while contemplating the teensy and the intangible, rather than advancing the story in any meaningful way.
Here’s another example, this one concerning the narrator’s memory of what may have been his first kiss, a phenomenon that, of all phenomena, should be treated with the tender ethereality it deserves, but instead gets the following heavy-handed showing off: “They meant so much then, kisses, they could set the whole kit and caboodle going, flames and firecrackers, fountains, gushing geysers, the lot. This one took place – no, was exchanged – no was consummated, that is the word…”
Ah, that’s the word. So why not use it in the first place?
And here is the grieving narrator in elegiac mode: “So much of life was stillness then, when we were young, or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilance. We were waiting in our as yet unfashioned world, scanning the future… like soldiers in the field watching for what was to come.”
So to review, that’s “stillness”… “a biding stillness”… “a vigilance”…”waiting”…”as yet unfashioned”…”scanning the future”… and, wait for it…”watching for what was to come.” Or so it seems now.
One could almost say that this sort of prose-making is prolix, or, rather, tautological, pleonastic even, with a repetitive sort of supernumerary redundancy.
How refreshing it is then, to read The Black-Eyed Blonde (or one of Black’s fine if glum Quirke novels) where there is never a sense that the author is trying to distract from the story, or the lack of same, by incessantly waving silken scarves in front of our faces. How refreshing, indeed, to hear Black’s Marlowe simply evoke the physical essence of a homicide detective named Joe Green, whose laugh “sounded like a plunger being pulled out of a toilet”, rather than, as Banville’s narrator might have it, maundering on about how that very same laugh “was a wet, sucking sound suggestive of a vacuum, and then the water rushing in to fill it, a cataract or a waterfall of dirty and brackish water, almost polluted, turbid perhaps, and yet somehow liquid and gushing and redolent of rubber.”
Sometimes I think we have it exactly backwards: Genre fiction has higher, not lower, standards than literary fiction, partly because it must tell a coherent story and tell it well, and partly because the authors of genre fiction are not looking over their shoulders at every moment at Immortality. (Chandler didn’t; that’s why he’s an immortal.)
It’s not necessarily true that the best genre fiction (admittedly only a small proportion of the total) is better written than much of our most-honored literary fiction. But I think it is true that in its more-modest but not inconsiderable goals it succeeds more frequently and does so less portentously than literary fiction. Literary fiction, to be sure, often has higher aspirations, but how seldom our finest contemporary writers rise to the occasion.
Somewhere in The Sea’s watery depths, Banville’s narrator, speaking, I suspect, on behalf of Banville, says, of his childhood bird-watching habits, “I could find their nests, though, that was my specialty. It was a matter of patience, alertness, quickness of eye, and something else, a capacity to be at one with the tiny creatures I was tracking to their lairs. A savant whose name for the moment I forget has posited as a refutation of something or other the assertion that it is impossible for a human being to imagine fully what it would be like to be a bat. I take his point in general, but I believe I could have given him a fair account of such creature-hood when I was young and still part animal myself.”
Well, maybe so; but while we wait for Banville to recapture his younger and more edenic self and ferret out the apposite words to fully imagine bat-hood in the service of something or other, Black has been getting on with it. He’s captured in a vivid and human way a passing moment most of us might have noticed at one time or another in the here and now, but that very few of us have the capability of preserving in words – the way those bats might look and sound on a Southern California night, squeaking and flickering like scraps of charred paper from a fire.