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)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

Rowling is still a fine writer, but, with this first attempt, she has not yet grasped the forward-moving structure so necessary to a mystery novel. She begins beautifully, as supermodel Lulu Landry falls from a balcony during a snowstorm, and the media, the curious, and paparazzi flock to the scene. Galbraith also introduces the interesting detective, Comoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, who have a complicated relationship. Finally, the author (whom I will now refer to as a “he.”) astutely captures the psychology of many of the characters.

The first problem is that Strike’s pursuit of how and why the girl fell involves a lot of sleuthing in the form of interviews and exchanges of information; but there is little action. And as this stretches out to more than 450 total pages, the lack of forward movement is telling. One knows that the author is setting up the solution step by step, but so many people are involved, and there are so many interlocking relationships, that the reader finds it difficult to fit the pieces together and thus see where the story is headed.

The title comes from a Christina Rossetti poem, which asks why one was born when the snow is falling, in winter, rather than when the cuckoo is calling, that is, in summer. And the victim, the beautiful supermodel, does die to begin the novel because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is also called the Cuckoo because she flits around town, catching everyone’s eye with her beauty.

But she is half black, making her an exotic beauty, and is adopted, which introduces the many mixed relationships, including love affairs, that complicate the story. Her tale begins when her brother John Bristow, not adopted, hires Strike to prove Lulu’s death was not a suicide, as the police proclaim, but was murder. Events then involve the entire Bristow family, including her nasty uncle Tony and her adoptive mother Yvette Bristow. It will also involve, as Michiko Kakutani writes in The New York Times, “a posh world of supermodels, rock stars, movie producers, and social-climbing wives.”

More specifically, it includes a weird clothes designer, Guy Some; Lulu’s boyfriend, Evan Duffield; her rehab girlfriend, Rochelle; her model friend, Ciara Porter; her birth mother Marlene Higson; the rapper Deeby Macc; and movie producer Freddie Bestigui and his estranged his wife Tansy. Plus many others. But who has played a significant role and who a minor role in Lulu’s death? This is difficult to determine as we follow Strike in his pursuit of what Lulu did the last two days of her life, and particularly what happened around her in those final moments when she plummeted from the balcony of her luxury apartment building. Strike’s 400 pages of conversation with those who knew her last days and witnessed those final moments becomes too detail oriented to move the story ahead. Nor do the various incidents seem to have any connection. Whereas, if the author had been wiling to suggest some of those connections, perhaps the reader might have been enticed to commit himself deeper to the story.

What is more interesting than the mystery, however, is the relationship between Strike and his secretary/assistant Robin. In fact, my interest in that relationship is similar to how I reacted in Galbrath’s follow-up novel, which I had read earlier. The mystery in both cases takes second fiddle. In the meantime, in this first novel, because he was an illegitimate baby himself, Strike relates to Lulu; and because he also has known the Barstow family before, he commits himself to resolving Lulu’s untimely fate.

Galbraith creates an interesting background for Strike. He has lost part of a leg in Afghanistan and is continually troubled by the prosthesis he wears. He is also near broke and has just separated from his dominating and long-time girl friend, Charlotte. Whereas, Robin, the temp he can barely afford, is already engaged to Matthew. On the other hand, she is drawn to the free-thinking Strike almost against her will. She is also fascinated by the detective profession itself, and often takes the initiative to help Strike find an answer to specific questions. One senses they will make an ideal team in future cases.

The story does falter in its conclusion, for it depends on a long, drawn-out explanation by Strike that is often typical of an authors’ early effort at a crime story. That is, the explanation of exactly how Lulu died has too many pieces to tie together, and is thus too drawn out to be interesting. The identity of the villain is also intended, I think, to offer a surprise; but the identity here is less surprising, since it is of one who is often found in detective novels. There is, however, one real surprise within that identification—being about another crime that personally affected Strike.

As I said, this is the second Galbraith novel I have read, and the fact that I have found the relationship between Strike and Robin again more interesting than the crime itself, well, this is not good news for the author. But I have the hope that Galbraith will improve, because he does have interesting insights about all of the characters, even the most minor. He just has to develop a more interesting but less complex case, and more dramatic events (or dramatic reversals) leading to an exciting conclusion. A lower page count in future works might be a key in determining if the author has succeeded in doing so. (June, 2017)