Filed Under:

Even In New Hands, Detective Philip Marlowe Rings True

Play associated audio

My wife and I recently moved to Los Angeles. To prepare, I reread a handful of the Philip Marlowe novels by the great Raymond Chandler, from The Big Sleep to The Little Sister. Chandler, who died in 1959, was a forefather of the modern detective novel. I've been a Chandler fan for years, but I also wanted to reread him because I knew I'd be reviewing a new Chandler book — written by somebody else.

As Marlowe himself says in Chandler's 1953 novel The Long Goodbye, "there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself." Let's just say I was ready to be disappointed. Instead, I've just finished The Black-Eyed Blonde, and I'm wondering how on Earth it rings so true. For Chandler fans — for fans of detective fiction, in general — it's a treat.

The main reason is the author, Benjamin Black. Black's the writer behind the bestselling Quirke thrillers, about a grouchy pathologist in 1950s Dublin. Black also happens to be the pen name of the Irish novelist John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2005 book, The Sea. As a novelist, Banville's known for his distinctive voice. As a crime writer, Black is credited for his subtle mysteries. In The Black-Eyed Blonde, we get both.

The story picks up from the end of The Long Goodbye. The setup is typical Chandlerian: a beautiful woman needs help finding a missing boyfriend, and Marlowe's just the sucker to help. The trouble is, the man's not just gone astray. He died in a car accident two months before our story starts. Yet our client recently spotted him walking down the street. From there, we're in and out of L.A. country clubs, taverns, and fist-fights as Marlowe tries to figure out what's really going on.

Half the pleasure of this book, at least for a Chandler fan, is to notice Black getting the little things right. Marlowe is always fast with a joke, but reluctant with his gun. He drinks too much, he's restless. And Los Angeles is captured precisely — its morning blues, its evening breezes. Line after line of dialogue sound accurate for Marlowe, without seeming too much like pastiche. "Sometimes," he says, "I think I should lay off cigarettes for good, but if I did that, I'd have no hobbies except chess, and I keep beating myself at chess."

Unfortunately, the book is still a bit of a let-down. Black's characters don't feel lived-in. The intrigue lacks wrinkles, and the mystery proceeds too smoothly — it doesn't have enough dead ends. Chandler was a master of the frustrating moments in police work, when time stands still and the southern California sun beats down on Marlowe's neck. But against a dozen other detective novels on my desk, I'll take a Raymond Chandler any day of the week, even when it's written by somebody else — assuming that somebody is Benjamin Black.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit


Boston Museum Exhibit Celebrates Legacy Of Black Mountain College

Black Mountain College was only open for 24 years, but it helped foment the work of several artists, musicians, dancers and filmmakers, including John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Cy Twombly. Now it's the subject of the first major museum retrospective at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

High-Sodium Warnings Hit New York City Menus

The city is the first in the nation to require a sodium warning on menu items containing 2,300 milligrams of sodium or more. The rule applies to chain restaurants with 15 or more locations.

World Leaders To Debate Role Of Nuclear Power At U.N. Climate Summit

NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Matthew Bunn, a nuclear and energy policy analyst and professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School, about the role nuclear power will play in the future. As world leaders meet in Paris for the U.N. climate summit, they discuss if countries are moving away or toward nuclear energy and and given safety and budget concerns, whether atomic power makes sense anymore.
WAMU 88.5

Computer Guys And Gal

Another year is coming to a close and the Computer Guys And Gal are here to discuss this year's biggest technology news, including the growth of virtual reality and the "Internet of Things."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.