Philip Marlowe returns with bark but no bite

A review of Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde. Purists will baulk at the lack of vim to this reincarnation of Raymond Chandler's detective

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

The Black-Eyed Blonde Benjamin Black

Mantle, pp.320, £16.99, ISBN: 9781447236689

With so much Nordic noir around, it’s a relief to return to the granddaddy of them all, the hard-boiled private dick, Philip Marlowe. Perhaps it’s inevitable that Benjamin Black’s reboot of Raymond Chandler’s great creation does not have the bite of Chandler in an age when the casual racism, sexism and downright class snobbery of mid-century America is not easy to articulate if you want to keep an audience sympathetic. But still, Black’s love of Chandler’s harebrained plots, stock characters and corny one-liners produces a tale that is hugely entertaining.

Inevitably this centres on a stunning blonde, Clare Cavendish, who walks into Marlowe’s sleazy downtown office with a missing-person case. It looks too simple to interest the jaded Marlowe, except he falls for the blonde. The ensuing job is anything but simple, and as the body count mounts Marlowe navigates Hollywood starlets, murderous English butlers and West Coast mobsters, none of whom seem willing or able to tell the truth until the final twist. Of course this includes Clare Cavendish herself. Meanwhile the cops stare with increasing disbelief at Marlowe’s implausible claims.

While casual Chandler fans will enjoy the familiar tropes, purists might baulk at the darkness of Chandler’s original character being rendered less intense. It is not meant as an insult for what is a very enjoyable book, but in film terms Black’s hero does sometimes resemble James Garner’s Jim Rockford rather than Humphrey Bogart’s classic Marlowe.

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  • transponder

    when the casual racism, sexism and downright class snobbery of mid-century America is not easy to articulate if you want to keep an audience sympathetic

    Ch–st, it wasn’t that bad: not everywhere and all the time. Anyone would think that America wasn’t the freest nation on Earth, even if it still had unfinished business (as all regimes do!).

    I don’t like the dark too dark, and Jim Rockford was a great character. Sounds just the ticket, to me.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Rockford’s fine for a TV series, but he isn’t Marlowe. This is obviously a waste of time.

      • Kitty MLB

        Agreed. Marlowe was a flawed man of decency in a bad world,
        integrity within his spine and his own moral Code. Inspector Morse and
        Marlow both also quite new with their intellectual idiosyncrasies- Marlowe
        with his private poets reading and Morse with his crosswords and
        classical music. And Marlow was the start of that type of detective,
        not just the car chase and shooting types of chap.

        • Fergus Pickering

          I think you will find Sam Spade came first. But Marlowe is a better man.

    • Kitty MLB

      Who could ever think America was not the freest nation on earth..
      the land of the free and the brave..well you haven’t got the EU attached
      to you like a succubus, dear S.. I am really trying to get used to your
      transformation into translucent transponder 😉
      Jim Rockford was ok but most in England might have preferred
      Columbo- about the same time I think
      the Peter Falk character.. not sexist, racist etc.
      We like a completely different type of detective in the UK..
      those who use little grey cells and another who has a morphine
      issue and wanders the moors quite often.

      • Dodgy Geezer

        And sharp-eyed little old ladies. Don’t forget the little old ladies…

    • Kitty MLB

      Sorry to be a pain 🙂 Can I also mention the original Rockford Files.
      They were catered around intricate conspiracies that were far to confused
      to be resolved within a hour. And far too many pointless car chases-
      what was with all the car chases.. We were just as bad. Thankfully
      we now have the ‘ thinking man’s ‘ detective..

    • gressy1970

      The reviewer says he likes the book, so why are you getting on your high horse?

      • transponder