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)

Being Dead, by Jim Crace

This 1999 work is a novel which the critics loved, but which I loathed. Loathed so much that I skimmed through it in one sitting. I almost did not write any comment, but I finally decided to be honest with myself and with the reader, even if it would expose my prejudices, my blindness, or simply my failings as a critic.

This is the story of Joseph and Celice, an elderly couple found murdered on a sand dune. They were scientists and teachers, unsuited for society but, we learn, perfectly suited for each other. Indeed, these unappealing characters were deeply in love, and went to the dunes to recapture the first sharing of their desire thirty years earlier.

The novel then advances on three levels. The first is their actual death in the immediate past, as the murderer sneaks up, and brains the unaware couple for their valuables. The second is the slow rotting of their bodies and the arrival, for a week, of birds, crabs, and insects to feed on those bodies. The third returns to a more distant past, to the couple’s initial meeting, courtship, and 30-year marriage. It is a marriage of two misfits, and this reader found it difficult to relate to or sympathize with either party. My approach was as clinical as was the author’s to their decaying bodies.

Much of the second half of the novel returns to the present, and concerns their equally uninteresting and estranged daughter as she searches for her missing parents. At this point, one wonders if Crace has deliberately created uninteresting characters in order that the reader focus on the corrupting bodies in the sand. Indeed, is that why he has created the dead couple as zoologists?

Yes, the process of corruption was distasteful to me, as was the details of the actual murder, including the couple’s complete unawareness of the killer as he inches closer. But what turned me off, primarily, was the unpleasantness of all the characters. Again, this is, I believe, because Crace wanted me to concentrate not on the characters but on death itself. And yet, it seems to be the “beauty” of this clinical description of the murder and the decaying bodies that has fascinated critics—along with the objectivity that confronts these unpleasant characters with inevitable death.

Such critics, I surmise, have no belief in or interest in any aspect of one’s character that might continue after death. Much like the author’s own lack of interest in his earlier tale about a Christ-like character spending forty days in the desert. Indeed, my reaction to that work, Quarantine, is consistent with my reaction here: “Crace, however, appears as uncomfortable with the spiritual world as he is comfortable with the physical world. And so while this novel succeeds in literary terms… it fails in its larger mission to discover a truth about a man and the meaning of his life. Crace sees his world precisely, but sees it only on the surface.”

Thus, I will accept that the author has even less interest in this book in the possibility of existence beyond death. But I feel he has stacked his deck too much. He has pushed the fact of inevitable death into our face and twisted it. I do not like being force-fed. I do not like being confronted with unpleasant people who endure an unpleasant death, and who live on only through their decomposing bodies. As if that is all of us that exists. That his decaying hand is found clutching her decaying ankle is not for me the beautiful symbol of love that the author intends.

To sum up, I am not as fascinated with the body as are the author here and his critics. We are more than bodies. We are hearts, minds, and souls. We are families. We are an interdependent society. We are more than two bodies decaying alone on distant sand dunes.

Of course, Grace’s sole purpose here may have been to convey the reality of death. Which explains why he took the various technical steps I have criticized above. If so, my response is that the result is a tour-de-force—and fails to meet my parameters for a work of literature. Simply put, I do not like dead ends. (July, 2015)

Aiding and Abetting, by Muriel Spark

This 2001 work is a beautifully conceived novel and professionally executed until the end, when it fails to match its inspired beginning—perhaps because the inspiration came from history, from a real crime that was never solved. Which means that Spark had to accommodate her ending to the known facts.

This is the story of two men who walk, separately, into the office of a famous Paris psychiatrist and claim to be a Lord Lucan who killed his children’s nanny 24 years earlier in a bungled attempt to murder his wife. The psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, is actually Beate Pappenheim, who herself has a problematic background. Years earlier, she swindled many people by posing as a stigmata. Indeed, she is also based on a historic figure, be it one who swindled people rather than assaulted them. But it is a typical cavalier approach by Spark, and, as I said, an inspired one, to combine these two historic personalities into one work of fiction.

The reader, like Hildegard, speculates about which of the two men who seek psychiatric help is the real Lord Lucan—one called Lucky or one called Walker—and why they claim to need such help. Later, however, and arbitrarily, Spark revels that the two men are conspiring colleagues, and they plan to blackmail Hildegard by threatening to reveal her past. It seems they need money. It seems that their wealthy aiders and abettors, who believe in protecting their fellow aristocrats, have been providing the true lord with money; and now they are now dying away, shrinking his source of funds.

And just as the two lords exist in a world of conceit and deceit, so Spark implies does Hildegard. For instead of listening to the lives and problems of her patients, like most psychiatrists, she tells them her own problems, until they either give up or buy into her approach. This is Spark, ever aloof, satirizing the life of both of her adversaries

The intrigue between these two dueling parties fades in the center of this short novel, however, as two figures from the lord’s past seek to track him down and interview him about the 24 years in which he has moved around the world, always being funded, and always escaping capture. The satire here extends beyond the life of self-righteous aristocrats to the pursuit of villains in detective stories. It even has a parallel track, with Hildegard herself disappearing briefly and her lover Jean-Pierre seeking to track her. Eventually, Spark does bring the pursuing couple into partnership with Hildegard and her lover, but their joining of forces is somewhat contrived.

The end result is a moral satire about an artful murderer dueling with a master con-woman. Spark here covers three bases. She addresses the nature of evil, indicts upper class mores, and maneuvers her characters into her resolution, in this case matching the history of an unsolved crime.

This is vintage Spark, even if imperfect, even if inspired by history rather than the author’s own imagination. For she remains aloof from her characters, revealing their crimes but letting the facts expose their true selves. Aristocratic Lord Lucan is so convinced of the justice of his every act, for example, that he believes it was his wife’s destiny to die. Just as it will be the destiny of his fellow Lord Lucan.

But although the two Lord Lucans become adversaries at the end, perhaps to meet the author’s needs, perhaps to add a new irony, the true duel is between Lord Lucan and Hildegard, as both threaten to reveal the other’s past. Michiko Kakutani points out their similarities in her New York Times review: “Both have spent much of their adult lives inventing new identities for themselves; and both, so to speak, have blood on their hands,” meaning Beate has because she faked the stigmata by placing menstrual blood on her hands.

The ending, which doesn’t work for me, has a touch of Waugh. The two Lord Lucans end up in Africa, and each becomes the victim of a different ironic fate. It is not the same as Waugh, and not as powerful, but it belongs to the same family of fates.

To sum up, this is 83-year-old Spark in complete control of her characters and their fates. She uses irony and satire to establish a certain moral level, but a level her characters easily transgress. The drawback is that it is an inspired treatment of a plot, but it is not itself an inspired plot. And because it must conform to certain facts of history, the conclusion does not have the bite that one expects from this author. (July, 2015)