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The Reading Life: Marlowe's Ghost

August 08, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, right, is to revive Raymond Chandler's, left, Philip Marlowe hard-boiled detective character, played by Humphrey Bogart, center.
Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, right, is to revive Raymond Chandler's,… (Associtated Press; file;…)

Call me dubious. When Henry Holt announced Tuesday that it would be reviving Raymond Chandler’s detective hero Philip Marlowe— 54 years after the author’s final Marlowe novel, “Playback” — I was (to put it mildly) underwhelmed.

Partly, that’s because the idea isn’t new: Robert B. Parker did it 20-some years ago, first with “Poodle Springs,” a novel Chandler started before his death in 1959, and then with “Perchance to Dream,” a sequel to “The Big Sleep.” If the notion of writing a sequel to the first novel in a series seems a bit redundant, then you’re beginning to see the source of my skepticism.

Yet equally worrisome, perhaps, is the involvement of John Banville, who will write the new book as his alter ego Benjamin Black. In reviewing Banville’s most recent Black novel “Vengeance,” I described my discomfort with the relationship between author and pseudonym. Why, I wonder, does Banville insist on writing mysteries under a nom de plume, especially when we all know it’s him? If “Vengeance” is any indication, one reason may be that he holds crime fiction to a different standard, not taking it as seriously as his more literary work.

Banville is entitled, I suppose, but it makes him an interesting choice to pick up the Marlowe mantle. Chandler, after all, bristled against the belief — expressed most witheringly by the critic Edmund Wilson — that mysteries are “simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”

In his 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, Chandler sought to set the record straight. “There are no vital and significant forms of art,” he declares; “there is only art, and precious little of that.... It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.”

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