From New York Time: Philip Marlowe, Peerless Detective, Returns for an Encore
In his spare time, Philip Marlowe plays chess with the dead, working out problems from a book of historic games as though a living chess player might let him down. He reads the society page when he has “run out of things to dislike.” He is a softhearted cynic, yet truer to the spirit of the law than any lawman.
Marlowe is, of course, the central character in Raymond Chandler’s detective novels, and everyone who loves Marlowe wishes Chandler had written a few more. “The Long Goodbye,” Chandler’s last good novel, was published in 1953. A new one is being written now.
The Chandler estate has asked the Irish novelist John Banville to revive Marlowe. Under his real name, Mr. Banville won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for “The Sea.” Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, he has been writing a mystery series of his own about a Dublin pathologist named Quirke. There are five books, including the newly published “Vengeance.”
So here’s how it stacks up. The new Marlowe novel will be written by Mr. Banville writing as Black writing as Chandler writing, in the first person, as Marlowe. There’s a plot in there somewhere.
Think of Marlowe, and his film avatars may come to mind — Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum or Elliott Gould. But Chandler matters as much for his prose as for his private detective, and in that Mr. Banville (or Black) is Chandler’s equal. Reading the opening pages of Mr. Banville’s “Book of Evidence” alongside Marlowe’s description of the “felony tank” in “The Long Goodbye” is enough to banish any doubt. And if Banville/Black can do for vintage Los Angeles what he does for vintage Dublin, his Marlowe will be worth waiting for. The hard part will be giving Marlowe only as much psychological depth as Chandler gives him. Mr. Banville’s characters — Quirke and the others — almost always run deeper.
Literary franchises are being reborn all around us. The Chandler estate authorized two Marlowe novels by Robert Parker, which appeared in 1989 and 1991. Bond is back, rewritten by several authors, and so is Holmes. P. D. James has wound Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet in the sordid coils of crime. Dorothy Sayers has been supplemented. These are acts of admiration as well as exhumation. At their best, these reinventions only increase the savor of the originals.
Something about the exploits of the great detectives inspires replication. There is more Marlowe than there was Sam Spade, who appeared in only a single novel and a few stories by Dashiell Hammett. There is more of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer than there is of Marlowe. And now everyone seems to be writing serial mysteries. When it comes to detection, we love originality, but not as much as we love repetition.
Marlowe’s urban anomie still feels fresh, even though his social attitudes are dated. But something else has changed, too. Marlowe lives in a world where crime makes a certain human sense, the result of hatred, jealousy, drunkenness, personal motives and business dealings. The few psychopaths, like Carmen Sternwood in “The Big Sleep,” are demure, if dangerous.