Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, walks the mean streets of Los Angeles once again in The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, the alias for his mystery series.
How did the Chandler estate come to choose you?
It was very simple. My agent, Ed Victor, also represents the Chandler estate. He mentioned to me a few years ago the possibility of doing a new Philip Marlowe novel, but it wasn’t until last year that I decided to take up the challenge.
Did you have any qualms about the request?
It’s funny that you ask this. I suppose I should have had qualms, many qualms, but I didn’t. It seemed to me an opportunity to embark on a splendid adventure. I “invented” Benjamin Black in 2004, after discovering Georges Simenon, whom I had never read before. His Maigret novels are wonderful, of course, but it was his “romans durs,” as he called them, his “hard novels,” that most impressed me, and encouraged me to try my hand at something similar. I say something similar, because I know I could never achieve Simenon’s extraordinary sparseness of style and accuracy of scene-setting.
When did you first read Chandler?
My brother introduced me to Chandler’s works when I was in my teens. This was an early revelation, somewhat like my later “discovery” of Simenon. Before I read Chandler, it had not occurred to me that crime fiction could be so elegantly written and true to life. Before that I had read only those splendid English mystery writers, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, etc.,—very good writers, but fiendishly clever puzzle-makers before anything else. Chandler, on the other hand, offered a wry, witty and melancholy version of West Coast low and high life—romantic and acrid at the same time—that was more realistic, or naturalistic, and so irresistible.
What was the hardest part of writing The Black-Eyed Blonde?
I wish I could say I sweated and wept over it, but I must be honest and say that the writing of it was a joy, or a relative joy, compared to the Quirke series, or my Banville books. I did, of course, have qualms about my knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of L.A. and environs, but I had good advisers in Ed Victor, Bob Bookman, and Candice Bergen, and others, plus, of course, the fact that a world imagined is always much more convincing than a world researched.
Was adopting Chandler’s voice more difficult than you expected?
No, less so. Good stylists are easier to imitate than bad ones. I’m sure, however, that true Chandler aficionados will find many jarring notes. But from the start I determined not to parrot Chandler, but to try to catch the spirit of his style and his vision.
What surprised you the most about writing this book?
How much in tune I seemed to be with a writer from before my time, who lived a life very different from my own, and in a place very different from where I live. Is this hubris? Probably. But I hope not.
Would you consider writing more Marlowe?
Yes, I would probably do another one, if I can think up a good plot. I like Marlowe, and I suppose I share something of his view of the world. He is heroic in a non-heroic age, and chivalrous in a decidedly non-chivalrous time. I like the notion of a man ready to venture down means streets, who is not himself mean—this was Chandler’s own formula for his hero. And after all, in these days, how often can one speak without embarrassment of a novel having a “hero”?