APRIL 19, 2014
EARLY IN MARCH, I attended one of the Writers Bloc interview sessions that Andrea Grossman presents regularly in Los Angeles, this one featuring Dublin author John Banville. He was touring from his native emerald isle, not on behalf of his prize-winning “literary” works, but on a crime novel that carries his genre nom de plume, Benjamin Black. Usually the Black books feature a depressed, alcoholic coroner named Quirk, staggering through murders and father-daughter confrontations in post–World War II Dublin. His new thriller, The Black-Eyed Blonde, the subject of that night’s program, is something a bit different — an addition to Raymond Chandler’s adventures of iconic private detective Philip Marlowe, set in Los Angeles at a time after the late author’s last great novel The Long Goodbye (1953) and before his, well, less than great Playback (1958).
Sipping occasionally from a cocktail, Banville responded to questions mainly about the writing of the new novel with an air of dry amusement. Yes, he realized he was walking on sacred ground, but he felt he could do justice to the character created by Chandler. No, he did not think it necessary to spend too much time researching Los Angeles in the 1950s, though he did ask friends familiar with the city to vet his manuscript.
As for how he came to the project: it was at the suggestion of his literary agent, Ed Victor, also the agent for the Chandler estate. For some time, Victor and the estate, controlled primarily by Graham C. Greene, nephew of the late novelist Graham Greene, have been actively attempting to keep the flame alive. There have been numerous news items about Philip Marlowe movies and television series that have never quite made it to screens large or small, although one was evidently filmed, judging by a sample available on YouTube. And, a few years ago, there was a report that a British novelist was working on a book featuring “the young Philip Marlowe.”
Now, Banville has delivered the goods. “Somewhere Raymond Chandler is smiling,” blurbs Stephen King. Maybe, if the late author ever smiled. The book is very Chandleresque, from its crisp dialogue and snappy similes to its convoluted plot in which Marlowe, working on behalf of the black-eyed blonde, battles Mexican hit men, arrogant aristocrats, smarmy socialites, and his own libido.
While the Irish author was explaining that it took a while for him to decide to accept the challenge, the thought occurred to me that, in spite of all the failed attempts by Victor and the estate to keep Marlowe’s goodbye as long as possible, in the 55 years since the author and his sleuth went on their conjoined big sleep, neither has really been put to rest. There have been countless imitations or, to put it more kindly, inspired works, of course. But, even before Banville’s addition, the novels that have directly involved Chandler and his characters easily outnumber those in his own meager canon of seven (and four chapters of an unfinished eighth).
There are countless references, like the brief shout-out to Chandler’s famous “down these mean streets” sentence (from his “The Simple Art of Murder” essay) in Kem Nunn’s darkly humorous Chance (Scribner, 2014), as well as intricate incorporations like Kim Cooper’s The Kept Girl (Esotouric Ink, 2014), a clever fiction with Chandler as its protagonist, in which, according to its introduction, “nearly every person, place and incident described is real.” Cooper’s novel takes the reader back to a lovingly researched and presented 1929 Los Angeles, just prior to the Wall Street Crash, when Chandler was still a Dabney Oil exec with a penchant for spotting fraud. He’s asked by his boss to investigate a young vamp who has charmed his nephew out of a fortune. The unhappily married, hard-drinking Chandler warms to the task, assisted by his secretary/paramour, Muriel Fischer, and a stalwart cop, Tom James, whose “scarce, self-published pamphlet,” Cooper writes in her acknowledgements, “showed him to be a very likely model for Chandler’s white knight detective.”
That white knight, renamed Philip Marlowe, is not the only one to get rewritten. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe confronts an unnamed bookshop clerk, “a small dark woman reading a law book [who has] the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” She holds her own in an exchange of patter with the detective, telling him, “You interest me. Rather vaguely.” This relatively minor character has been reincarnated as Elaine Greenstein, the narrator of Janice Steinberg’s recent suspenseful multigenerational saga, The Tin Horse (Random House, 2013).
One of Marlowe’s first appearances in a novel not penned by Chandler occurs in novelist-screenwriter Charles Alverson’s Goodey’s Last Stand (Houghton Mifflin, 1975). San Francisco sleuth Joe Goodey, on the prowl for the murderer of a nightclub dancer, steps from the well-kempt corridor of the Mark Hopkins hotel into the past — an anteroom decorated in drab 1940s style, complete with carpet “thin to the point of near translucence [that] exuded dust with every footstep.” There’s a half-glass office door, too, “dimly lit from within that said, ‘M. Phillips, Private Investigations.’” That would be Marlowe avatar Marley Phillips. He tells Goodey, “For nearly thirty years I was a private eye in Los Angeles. I never got rich, but I did all right. […] There are some old cops, retired now or maybe dead, who’d have told you I was a sneaky, crooked son of a bitch, but they’d have been wrong.” When Goodey asks him about the ancient office decor, the reply is a reference to events in Chandler’s unfinished manuscript, then titled The Poodle Springs Story. He married a very rich woman who could not stand Los Angeles’s smog and heat. They moved to San Francisco where
she was happy as two clams and I wasn’t in any obvious pain. But something was wrong. I felt like a hound dog in a bubble bath. I kept looking at the marvelous views and getting morbid thoughts. So I had some very expensive gentlemen go down to LA and bring back most of my office. […] [N]ow I sit here working on chess problems, reading a bit, and waiting for a knock on the door.
The mass-market paperback original Chandler by William Denbow (Belmont Tower Books, 1977), when mentioned at all, is usually dismissed as a clunky attempt to ride along in the wake of Joe Gores’s well-received novel Hammett. But it’s worth a gander if only because it offers a closer look than usual at Joseph “Cap” Shaw, the legendary, notoriously irascible editor of Black Mask magazine. The plot is unquestionably second-rate. Chandler, barely into his new career as a pulp writer, visits Manhattan for a face-to-face with Shaw. While there, he attempts to help an alcoholic, ill, and dismissive Dashiell Hammett, who is holed up in a hotel room, trying to avoid a vengeance-bent wrongo he sent over during his Pinkerton days.
In the course of getting soused with Hammett, Chandler discovers that his idol doesn’t like the name of his Black Mask PI, Carmady. “He sounds like a mug,” Hammett grumbles, suggesting, instead, “Chris Marlowe.” When Chandler turns up his nose at “Chris,” Hammett says his dog has a name that might work. “Phil.”
In Stuart Kaminsky’s second Toby Peters mystery, Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (St. Martins, 1977), his 1940s sleuth is hired to investigate the murder of an Oz munchkin and the attempted murder of Judy Garland. Following clues and leads, Peters meets Louis B. Mayer, Victor Fleming, and Clark Gable. And he picks up a tail — a round-faced, weak-chinned crime writer named Raymond Chandler, who’d been soaking up the atmosphere of Los Angeles’s darker avenues, along with the more than occasional bourbon highball, when he glimpsed Peters plying his PI trade. A good thing, because his unwanted presence eventually provides the detective with a much-needed alibi.
Ten Percent of Life by Hiber Conteris (Fireside, trade paperback, 1987) is an at times confusingly surreal novel (translated from the Spanish by Deborah Bergman) that finds Marlowe in 1956, looking into the supposed suicide of Chandler’s literary agent, but also getting involved in McCarthy-era politics. Lots of names are dropped, from authors Hammett and Vincent Starrett, of all people, and musician Bud Powell to characters from Chandler’s novels, like Velma Valento and Jessie Florian (from Farewell, My Lovely) and Roger Wade (The Long Goodbye).
In 1988, to mark the centenary of the late author’s birth, 23 crime writers, including Max Allan Collins, Sara Paretsky, Robert Crais, Robert Randisi, Ed Gorman, Simon Brett, and Roger L. Simon, concocted tales for an anthology titled Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. (I should note that I, too, contributed a Marlowe pastiche to that volume, a sequel to what I consider to be the author’s best short story, “Goldfish.”)
That same year saw the publication of Gaylord Larsen’s A Paramount Kill (Dutton), a novel set in 1945 Hollywood. It focuses on Chandler, who has just turned in his script for The Blue Dahlia. The studio bosses are happy with it, but the Navy is not: the murderer is a World War II vet whose addled mind was improperly treated by Navy doctors, and they want the script changed. Director Billy Wilder, a power at Paramount with whom Chandler battled during the writing of Double Indemnity, sides with the Navy. Not only is he more than happy to make trouble for his least favorite collaborator, he’s got a project that needs government approval. Annoyed, Chandler decides to play a prank that would embarrass the director, but a real corpse gets in the way. The middle-aged, alcoholic writer is forced not only to find a new killer for his script but also a real-life murderer who’ll keep him from being arrested for the crime. Perplexed, he keeps asking himself, “What would Philip Marlowe do now?” The novel is well written, funny, smartly researched (Larsen spent some of his UCLA grad school years at Paramount), and delivers a surprising and satisfying conclusion.
As Chandler’s readers are all too aware, his death left a novel largely unfinished. The part he had written, about Marlowe trying to adjust to being married to a wealthy woman, was not terribly good, and Robert B. Parker’s completion, Poodle Springs (Putnam, 1989), did not rise above that standard. The 1998 HBO film made from the novel, screenplay by Tom Stoppard and direction by Bob Rafelson, with James Caan as Marlowe, arguably made better use of the material.
There’s nothing much to say about Parker’s other brush with Chandler, Perchance To Dream (Putnam, 1991). Thissequel to The Big Sleep didn’t work on any level. During a crime fiction discussion on the PBS show Book Marks, when wryly asked by fellow novelist Lawrence Block if he planned to do any more Marlowe novels, Parker grumbled a quick, emphatic “No.”
The Waste Land by Martin Rowson (Harper & Row, 1990) is a graphic novel that parodies both Chandler and T. S. Eliot. In its course, private eye Marlowe, in the words of the dust jacket,
enters a nightmare world where Robert Frost, Norman Mailer and Edmund Wilson drink in the gloom of a London pub; where Auden is glimpsed entering the men’s room; where Henry James, Aldous Huxley and Richard Wagner share an ice cream aboard a Thames pleasure steamer; and where, out of luck and out of clues, Marlowe finally tracks down T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
In John Shannon’s The Orange Curtain (Carroll & Graff, 2001), Marlowe is aged appropriately — he’s in his 90s — and trying to cut down on his smoking. Series hero Jack Liffey goes to him for advice but doesn’t get much, other than the name of a place where he can find a cheap but good single malt. The retired private eye also treats Liffey to a litany of complaints about his chronicler. Among them: “What burns my ass is Ray making me say things that are anti-colored and anti-Semite in the books. I was never those things. […] That was something that little British pansy picked up in his rotten private school in Dulwich.”
William F. Nolan wrote at least three novels that he labeled “Black Mask Boys” mysteries. The first, The Black Mask Murders (St. Martin’s, 1994), features Dashiell Hammett as its protagonist; the third, Sharks Never Sleep (Thomas Dunne Books, 1998), centers on Erle Stanley Gardner. Chandler appears in those as a supporting player but takes the lead in book two, The Marble Orchard (St. Martin’s, 1996), set in the period just prior to his writing The Big Sleep. He narrates the novel in a voice that smartly changes as the story progresses. Initially, he sounds like a sensitive, thoughtful British-educated gent — filling in the reader on his life, his first meeting with Cissy Pascal, their marriage. When her former husband, Julian Pascal, is found dead in a Chinese cemetery, the apparent result of a ritual suicide, Cissy refuses to believe the death report. She insists “Raymio” look into it, and he begins an investigation that takes him from Hollywood to the Hearst Castle and back, along the way confronting such characters as William Randolph Hearst, Charlie Chaplain, and the young, marvelously arrogant Orson Welles. The narrative voice during this section is that of an observant chronicler of events. Finally, once Chandler has been exposed to the grim dehumanizing reality of the dark side of Hollywood, the writer begins speaking in the voice familiar to fans of the Marlowe novels.
What would Chandler have thought about all this literary jackdawing? A 1947 letter to critic James Sandoe that appears in the Frank MacShane–edited Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (Columbia University Press, 1981) gives us a clue. In it he writes, “I am working, or was, on another Marlowe, because for business or professional reasons I think the guy is too valuable to let die out.” Clearly a statement with which Ed Victor and the Chandler estate would heartily agree.
Perhaps a more salient question might be: why have established crime writers been motivated not just to follow Chandler’s lead in crafting their novels but actually to use him and his characters in their fiction? When asked by interviewer Lewis Lapham why he decided to write a Marlowe novel, Parker replied, “I wanted to see if I could do it.” Banville’s reason is similar. “I’ve been fond of Chandler’s writing since my early teens. His is a model for all crime fiction. A great influence. I thought it would be fun and that, if successful, it might just encourage readers to go back to the originals.” Shannon has a slightly different take on how Marlowe wound up supporting his detective. “I’m not huge on metafiction, but the idea of turning a fictional character we all love into a ‘real’ character who only lives in another fiction was just too good to pass up. And I think I was able to give it a twist to comment (a fourth meta-level?) on Chandler’s character in real life.”
I suppose some theorist could make the case that these riffs on Chandler and his creations, like the unending iterations of comic book superheroes, and the sorry retreads of films, Broadway musicals, and television series, are nothing more than examples of the declining health of our collective imagination. But why not take Parker and Banville and Shannon at their word and see these books as something much less gloomy, as the result of professional writers paying homage, amusing themselves, and maybe making a few bucks — as they have every right — by creating fan fiction?