Benjamin Black is reviving Raymond Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe. There are lots of things easier than that: Digging a ditch with your tongue, for example. I like Marlowe but I never found him to be much more than the sum of the characters Chandler stirred in to the atmosphere around him. He’s an enigma, a cypher, a man wanting and waiting to be made whole by circumstances. He was always craving a world he could control and make into something much less unruly and chaotic than he knows the world to be. A dreamer who doesn’t know he is one.
Benjamin Black is a good writer. Couple that with a chance to go back to an era when men wore hats, drank whiskey by the fistful and kept everyone at arms length and to the era when women wore style like a skin, filled rooms with haunting aromas and stood their ground with grace and strength. This was, for me, too much to resist. The chance to read a line like: ‘The rain was making the lake look like a bed of nails.’ Um good. This was Chandler back from the grave and Black at his best.
The story begins where it must, a client walks into his office. That she is astonishingly beautiful is a lucky break, or is it? Being a former Private Investigator myself this is a cause for suspicion. Beautiful women don’t have to pay someone, anyone, to help them, they have to fight would-be helpers off with the proverbial stick. But let’s put that aside for now. He knows the client is lying, intentionally or not, after all, if she knew the facts why come to him? The investigator asks questions to make the client feel at ease, to get them to sign the contract, to get the job. Then the mystery can begin.
Did I say writing this book could be like trying to tie your shoes using only your ears? The original writing from this genre is so good when it’s at its best, and not just Chandler, that it’s been parodied to death, maybe best by Steve Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. And at times this novel has that tinny ring. Almost like Black is trying to get himself into the Chandler-groove by spinning metaphors. It works, he gets there and it’s, at last, satisfying. I just wish he would have gone back and cut a little.
There is also a place on page 150 where a kid named Jimmy in `a red and green checkered jacket’ (and it’s not December) tells Marlowe `the boss wants to talk to you’. The boss, Lou Hendricks, is a grotesque fat man. To visualize these characters you only need to imagine Wilmer Cook and Kasper Gutman. Marlowe even refers to Jimmy as a gunsel, leveling the same insult at Jimmy that Sam Spade leveled at Wilmer. If one writer is going to pay homage to another Hammett certainly deserves it.
A cigarette smoked in an ebony holder is described as, when Marlowe sees it crushed out in the ashtray, having lipstick on it, which is unlikely. If you’ve read The Long Goodbye you’ll be surprised to find Terry Lennox here, alive and well. But saying all of that, I’m glad someone attempted this palimsest (a word Black uses in the novel) of Chandler. If Benjamin Black again inhabits the mind of Raymond Chandler, I will read it. In fact I look forward to the opportunity and relish the thought. Meanwhile I’m going to read some Chandler inhabiting Chandler. Um good.