BENJAMIN BLACK, aka John Banville, had begun writing his latest crime novel when his agent, who is also the agent for Raymond Chandler’s estate, sent him a copied typescript page from Chandler’s files, which included a list of possible titles for future books or stories. The Black-Eyed Blonde was among the list of about 20.
Banville did some tinkering. “I had to change the colour of the eyes and hair of Clare Cavendish,” he says, and continued on his way with a commission to write a new Philip Marlowe story, entitled The Black-Eyed Blonde.
The novel’s femme fatale — who has eyes that “were black, black and deep as a mountain lake” — gets her first name from her mother’s native county in Ireland. Clare’s father was one of Michael Collins’s men, who came a cropper during the Civil War. He was left to wait for the tide to come in while buried up to his neck in the sand at Fanore strand. Clare’s mother wound up in Los Angeles where she made a fortune from perfume. She’s a hoot, with “the voice of an Irish longshoreman“, and, notes Marlowe, “a nice bosom and a nicer rear-end”.
Her daughter, Clare, is in a fix, and saunters into Marlowe’s office one hot, July afternoon in the early 1950s, one of those days, ponders the sleuth, “in high summer when the sun works on you like a gorilla peeling a banana”.
Marlowe has to apply his bloodhound nose to the trail of her missing lover, who apparently has done “the greatest disappearing act of all” and been killed in a hit-and-run, but then re-appears in San Francisco. Marlowe’s vision on the case is blurred a bit by Clare’s irresistible charm. All she has to do is mouth something in that breathy whisper of hers, and Marlowe’s left standing, “feeling stolid and craggy-faced, like a cigar-store Indian”.
Banville says he doesn’t find the parameters of the crime fiction genre restricting. This is his eighth hard boiled book, including six Quirke mysteries, which have been adapted for a BBC television series starring Gabriel Byrne.
“There is only one restriction — you can’t write a crime novel without a crime in it. With a conventional novel, you can do anything — you can have a crime in it or not. With crime fiction, you have that restriction, but it’s not a very great restriction. In a way, there’s a form for crime fiction. You might even say there are clichés in crime fiction, but it’s always interesting to work in a pre-existing form, and to work extending it, and to make it new.”
When prompted, Banville makes a distinction between a clichéd work, and a hackneyed one, when it comes to discussion about the categorisation of crime fiction. “A cliché is a cliché because it’s true and it endures. Hackneyed is something that is outworn and dusty. Crime fiction is never that.
“It is a challenge working within a form that is to a certain extent clichéd. That was Chandler’s great revolution — that he took a form that had become rather dull. All those English women novelists of the early part of the 20th century — Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham. There were about a dozen of them, all these women in flowered frocks with murder in their hearts. Chandler took it and he made something new out of it. He did it by force of style.
“Chandler said he would write crime fiction where the reader won’t care who killed who or what the plot was. What you care about is what the people are like, what they say to each other, how they interact, and how the thing is written. If it’s well written you won’t be rushing to find out who did the killing. You’ll enjoy each page as it goes by. That was a new way of writing crime fiction. It was a revolution, and a revolution that is still going on. If you look at HBO and the new television drama series, they’re all in a way derived from Chandler — they’re true to life.
“I loved Agatha Christie when I was young — I’m just taking her as representative of earlier crime fiction —but it was rather like doing a crossword puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle. You put all the pieces together. The characters are rather cardboard characters, not always, but to a large extent. You’re really rushing through this thing to find out who did it. When you get to the end of it, you have a sort of dry taste in your mouth. You think, ‘God, why did I spend so much time doing this now that I’ve discovered who did the killing?’ Chandler said, ‘I don’t care who killed Professor Plum in the library with the lead pipe. I’m interested in how it’s written’.
“If you look at something like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or even Mad Men, you’re not looking to get to the end of it; you’re enjoying it as it goes along. That was a revolution.”
Banville has great fun “channelling“, as Richard Ford puts in the book’s dust-jacket, Chandler’s old shamus, Marlowe. His Marlowe is jaded, difficult to impress and wise-cracks at the drop of a hat. All the men in The Black-Eyed Blonde seem to wear hats. Why men don’t wear hats anymore is a mystery. It has to do with JFK, says Banville.
“It was John F Kennedy who destroyed the hat industry in America. He didn’t wear a hat for his inauguration. Everybody wore hats before that. Every man had at least one hat. That changed entirely and then of course hair styles changed as well. Men used to have this oiled-down hair. It didn’t matter whether you put a hat on or not. Then suddenly men started having curly hair and so on, and if you took the hat off you suddenly had ‘hat hair’ like brioche rolls.”
Banville, who is a film buff, is interesting on the film adaptations of Chandler, and in particular about Humphrey Bogart, who, he points out, was miscast.
“Chandler had wanted Cary Grant as Marlowe. You can imagine how different that would have been because he would have got Cary Grant’s style, his delicacy, and his insecurity. Cary Grant famously said when he was being interviewed, ‘You know Cary Grant? Oh, I wish I were him’. You would have had a man as Marlowe giving a performance, whereas Bogart was too old. I think he was 48, 49. He was too short.
“At the beginning of The Big Sleep movie, Carmen, the giggling girl, says, ‘You’re not very tall, are you?’ In the book, she says ‘You’re very tall, aren’t you?’ They had to change everything for Bogart, but it turned out that he became Marlowe for many people. I imagine that nine out of 10 people you ask about Philip Marlowe, they say, ‘Oh yes, Humphrey Bogart.’ Bogart had this wonderful screen presence. Here was this short, ugly, elderly guy who made a legend out of it.”
Banville has written several screenplays, including Albert Nobbs, the acclaimed film by Glenn Close, and the upcoming adaptation of The Sea, his 2005 Man Booker Prize-winning novel. He hopes the film industry will revive itself, after its financial crash and the flight of its talent to cable television.
“I’m just watching the final season of Breaking Bad, and it’s astonishing. You wouldn’t get that now in the movies. I hope the movie industry comes back because I always loved the movies. As I’ve always said: ‘it’s the people’s poetry’.
“It’s entirely different to television. Nowadays, you can even pause it; you can go out and have a pee or turn on the kettle. With a movie, you have to sit there and watch this thing from start to finish. I’d like to see that come back.
“When you’re in a cinema, you’re sitting in the dark. There’s nothing else. Remember in the old days when you stumbled out after a movie, and the world looked unreal because you’d been sitting there for an hour and a half or two hours completely wrapped up in somebody’s dream? That’s an amazingly powerful thing.”