At the age of forty-four, Raymond Chandler (1888- 1959) famously reinvented himself as a crime fiction writer after losing his job as an oil company executive during the American Depression. His best-known novels are The Long Goodbye, Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep, all of which have been adapted as highly successful movies.
Central to his best-selling stories is the private detective Philip Marlowe, a winning mixture of calculated fearlessness, romantic longing, and its natural counterpart, disillusionment.
Chandler, as craftsman of elegant sentences has long fascinated John Banville, for whom the plots are secondary. The Wexford writer was introduced to the novelist by his elder brother, Vincent (Banville) who is himself a writer of crime fiction. Under his Benjamin Black persona, Banville undertook to write a new Philip Marlowe adventure, emplying the stylistic hallmarks of Chandler.
Banville has delivered the goods with style and aplomb. His 290-page tale, which is set in Los Angeles in the 1950s, even includes a Mickey Finn, a drug placed in Marlowe’s drink which knocks him out. You can almost see it coming and Marlowe deals with its disturbing, woozy after-effects, as though it were inevitable. If he is to be reinvented by some Irish writer guy, he must accept a Mickey Finn in his drink, and no more about it.
As for the plot, well, the mysterious blonde of the title, the wealthy Clare Cavendish, contracts Marlowe to search for a certain Nico Peterson. The search leads Marlowe to the swish Cahullia club, outside of which Peterson was apparently run over by a car and killed. The detective is not even clear as to why he has been contracted and the case is baffling in the extreme. If Peterson is dead and his body has been duly identified, how come Clare Cavendish claims to have seen Peterson alive on a street in San Francisco?
In a swimming pool scene where Marlowe comes face to face with the baddies, Banville carefully balances the action so that it almost teeters into farce. The Coen Brothers - who typically play off highly-charged drama against counter-intuitive humour - would just love that swimming pool sequence. They must be told instantly about John Banville’s engaging story and then we will get a cracker of a film too.