The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black

I usually avoid these novels commissioned by the estate of a dead author. Like those that feature such heroes as Spenser, James Bond, and Jason Bourne. Because these novels are never the real thing, or their hero the real hero incarnated.

But I may have to change my mind. At least for any pastiche written by Benjamin Black, whose Dublin mysteries I have long admired. Not to mention his true identity as John Banville, a true Irish literary phenomenon.

For here he offers in this 2014 work a terrific recreation of a Philip Marlowe crime story set in a Los Angeles type city of the 1950s. I succumbed particularly to the tongue in cheek style that one associates with the late Raymond Chandler. It may be slightly exaggerated here, but it is still fun to read.

It is particularly reflected in Marlowe’s self-awareness, that of his own lonely life among the low lifes, and then the arrival in his dusty office of this blonde beauty far above his station, and yet, as he dreams, perhaps available. This self-awareness also produces the snappy dialogue one associates with Chandler and private eyes, such as when Marlowe teases others, like the cops that he knows and that he realizes he must keep informed. It is a teasing, however, that can also irritate some cops, even as it entertains us. And Marlowe is aware of this.

But that, as I said, is the entertainment aspect. An equal driver of my interest was the story. After the black-eyed blonde, no stranger to such detective tales, enters Marlowe’s office, he follows tradition and succumbs to her beauty and her charms. Whereupon, off we go. But as Marlowe begins his investigation, it becomes more and more complex and more and more dangerous. As Olen Steinhauer writes in his review in The New York Times, author Black also draws extensively on the conventions of private eye mysteries. The critic cites, in addition to the femme fatale, “the drinking and the bursts of violence; the high society folks with secrets to sweep under the rug, the soulless thugs and surly cops, and the dead.”

This novel begins with the beautiful Claire Cavendish wanting Marlowe to find out what happened to Nico Peterson, her dead lover. He was unexpectedly killed by a hit and run driver and his body mutilated; and she wants to learn what really happened. But things are not that simple, Marlowe learns. He soon finds himself involved with gangsters, drug runners, and rich families, along with the victims of violent torture and murder. Not to mention the novel’s first surprise, what really happened to Nico, or how Marlowe’s fascination with Claire becomes deeper and deeper, and yet his opinion of her becomes more and more uncertain. Could she really love the kind of man he learns Nico is? And so is she as untrustworthy as he suspects? As if we readers of private eye stories were not asking the same question.

There are a number of fine set pieces, such as one in which a casual conversation is interrupted by violence and a kidnapping, while another ends in torture in a swimming pool, from which Marlowe makes an unconvincing escape. But the latter is the only misstep in the novel until the ending. Which does disappoint because it lacks any power, that is, any emotion, any surprise. Olen Steinhauer also reflects this in his review: “There’s an odd emptiness…a suggestion that literary style has triumphed over content, leaving a hollowed-out place where the emotion should have been.”

Which leads one to ask: are these recreations worth doing? Should Banville, and others, spend their valuable time duplicating the feats of our popular fictional heroes? When they could be spending their substantial skills on more original and more literary work. Do they do it because they like the challenge? Or because they like the money? The publishers would seem to want them to do it because of the money. And the public does seem to like to revisit its old heroes. So are we weighing our reading pleasure against the loss of time that some of these authors need to produce possibly great literature?

There is no easy answer in today’s commercial world. Perhaps one is to be found, however, in the fact that I have not been prompted to write to any extent on the content of this work. On its style, yes. On its story, yes. But not on any meaning inside its story. Or inside its characters (except that inherent cleverness).

Bottom line: I would read another Benjamin Black pastiche. On any author’s work. But I still have reservations about anyone else. (September, 2019)

Elegy for April, by Benjamin Black

It is interesting to read Black after having just read Banville. This Black mystery from 2011 moves forward quite briskly, and yet there is Banville’s familiar richness in presenting the setting and the characters. Dublin lives on these pages, as do those who are searching for answers, both to their life and to the mystery behind the disappearance of April.

The friends of April Latimer, the girl of the title, are desperately trying to find out what happened to their unconventional colleague, while her estranged family claims to have no interest, indeed wants the others to stop their search. The friends are five young people and include Phoebe Griffin, the daughter of Quirke, this series’ pathologist hero. She asks her father to help them find out what happeed to April, and Quirke, in turn, seeks the help of his friend Inspector Hackett, the policeman of this series.

The other friends are the newspaperman Jimmy, the actress Isabel, and the black, educated Nigerian, Patrick. Jimmy is not a suspect; he is just curious as a reporter. Nor is Isabel, but she catches the eye of Quirke, and a romance adds a potential new touch to the series. And Patrick is too obvious a suspect to be one. Plus, neither they nor the reader know if April has disappeared on her own, or has died at someone’s hand.

On the other hand, all the Latimers act suspiciously, as they try to forestall the investigation. These include April’s mother Celia; her brother Oscar, a doctor; and her uncle William, a government minister who is the brother of her dead father Conor, an Irish revolutionary. Do they know if April is alive or dead? Were they involved in her disappearance? They all do seem to be hiding behind the desire to protect the family’s reputation.

What makes this work so interesting is not really the fate of April. It is the relationships. Of Quirke with his daughter Phoebe. As well as with Inspecrtor Hackett. And also with the actress Isabel. Plus the relationships among the five young people, first April’s with everyone, and then the black Patrick’s with everyone. Not to mention the Latimer family and their various negtive feelings about April.

And as mentioned earlier, the novel comes alive in its descriptions. From the mists of November to the freezing air of December. From Dublin’s streets and cafes to its parks and waterways. From office interiors to mansion rooms to dark stairs in dingy apartments. All of which becomes richer through the responses of Quirke, Phoebe, and Hackett to both the poverty and the wealth that they enounter.

The least effective section of the novel is the denoument. First, because it stems from Quirke’s sudden flash of memory regarding a moustache. The reader is aware of this moustache but has no reason to recall it, because it is slipped in so casually. And second and more significant, because this is another tale in which, once accused, the villain quickly confesses. So conveniently, author Black. And the confession becomes a long drawn out scene in which the villain keeps flashing a gun. Will he use it? How will he use it? And on whom?

The villain’s motive, on the other hand, reveals evil personified. And makes convincing why the Latimer family wanted to conceal the truth of April’s disappearance. But this powerful motive that tries to jar us at the end seems too much tacked on, as if the author decided to come up with something truly evil to achieve a final impact.

And so, yes, one is interestd in more mysteries by Benjamin Black. But less because of the mysteries themselves than because of the people. And less in the solutions to come than in the relationships inside the Quirke family, as well as their always interesting interaction with the Dublin environment. (May, 2015)