An audience with crime novelist Benjamin Black has a bit of the air of a meeting with a mental health professional about multiple personality disorder, especially given that we’re here to discuss his latest novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, commissioned by the estate of the late Raymond Chandler to continue the adventures of private eye Philip Marlowe.
Black, of course, is the shadowy pseudonym of Man Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville, who slaves over his literary novels like he’s pressing coal into diamonds. Black is the one who writes books fast to be read fast, most notably the six black-hearted noir novels starring Irish pathologist Quirke. Hovering over the conversation, too, is always the specter of Raymond Chandler, whom Black has mimicked marvelously as Marlowe reflects on another lean season in the early 1950s.
It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it’s being watched. Cars trickled past in the street below the dusty window of my office, and a few of the good folks of our fair city ambled along the sidewalk, men in hats, mostly, going nowhere. I watched a woman at the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood, waiting for the light to change. Long legs, a slim cream jacket with high shoulders, navy blue pencil skirt. She wore a hat, too, a skimpy affair that made it seem as if a small bird had alighted on the side of her hair and settled there happily. She looked left and right and left again—she must have been so good when she was a little girl—then crossed the sunlit street, treading gracefully on her own shadow.
So begins The Black-Eyed Blonde, a throwaway title left by Chandler himself in a long-forgotten notebook, nestled among a list of possible titles. It begins as the titular blonde, a woman named Clare Cavendish, slides into Marlowe’s office with a missing-persons case that quickly degenerates into a hotbed of conspiracy, trouble and violence. Over the course of our conversation, Black/Banville holds forth on a wide range of topics, from the aching beauty of noir fiction to the business of writing to the mystery of Quirke’s first name. First, though, he wants to put Chandler in context.
“He wasn’t a pulp writer at all, you know,” he says. “I don’t know if there were any pulp writers, really. The more you read of people like James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and latter-day writers like Richard Stark, there’s very little pulp writing there. They were all stylists in their way, people who wanted to make beautiful objects. That may seem strange but if you look at something like Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which I think he wrote over the course of a long weekend, it’s a beautifully shaped and frightening piece of work. It’s real—it’s not just the stuff to read on the train and be entertained for the hour. It is that, but it’s not only that. It’s something else as well. That’s what I’ve always loved about noir fiction.”
For being a man writing in multiple personas, the addition of a third seems to have left the author with something of a void. He has virtually no recollection of writing The Black-Eyed Blonde, which was written in the manner that Black writes, in the depths of summer, alone in a small room.
“Yes, it’s very strange,” he says. “In the twilight of my years, I seem to have discovered a way to write that I quite enjoy. It’s the strangest thing that I can’t remember writing The Black-Eyed Blonde. It was a kind of out-of-body experience. I’m not being mystical and saying that I was possessed by the spirit of Raymond Chandler or anything, but it was a new way of writing for me that was fascinating and that I’ll probably do again. Someone did say to me recently, ‘So, now you’re John Banville pretending to be Benjamin Black pretending to be Raymond Chandler?’ ”
The new book takes place in the late 1950s, an era that Black knows and loves, and it takes place shortly after the events of Chandler’s 1953 masterpiece The Long Goodbye.
“I think Chandler put all of his self-loathing into The Long Goodbye,” he observes. “He was drinking too much and he had this strange marriage and he wasn’t a happy man. It always seemed to me that the essence of Philip Marlowe is his solitude, but his solitude so frequently topples over into loneliness. I think Marlowe is constantly looking for some solid place to put his foot down, some place to belong in. He has this rented house up in the hills and a couple of Hollywood pictures on the walls, an awful bedside lamp, a chess set, and a coffee pot. That’s about all there is to his landscape. There’s something of a sense of adventure about it, too, but he’s a very, very isolated person.”
Black is well-known for his atmospheric depictions of Dublin in the 1950s but in his hands, Marlowe’s Los Angeles, specifically Chandler’s fictional “Bay City,” an alternate version of Santa Monica, becomes a neon-soaked desert where no one knows where all the bodies are buried.
“One never really writes about a place, really; one just writes in a few landmarks,” he says. “It’s all smoke and mirrors in a way, but I do love writing about Marlowe’s Los Angeles, which is like the dark side of the moon. I love the notion of this big, sprawling city. I remember the first time I saw Los Angeles in about 1968. We looked down from the hills onto the city of Los Angeles and this enormous city looked to me like something from outer space. It was this idea of a city that is almost itself a country, a place where nobody knows you.”
The author, like Ian Rankin and many of his other contemporaries who write “crime fiction” would like to get out of this messy business of genre identification altogether.
“Good writing is good writing, no matter where it happens,” he affirms. “I remember the first dishwasher I bought in the early 1970s. The instruction booklet that came with it was beautifully written. It was a masterpiece of economical English style. Good writing can be done anywhere, in so-called literary novels, in crime fiction, in letters, and in dishwasher instruction manuals. I love the notion that we’re getting away from the whole modernist obsession with the artist as a suffering genius despising the world. I think it’s time for writers to get back to doing stuff accidentally, letting things happen, and not taking themselves too seriously.”
It’s rare for the author to admit to liking one of his own novels, but he seems to have taken a shine to The Black-Eyed Blonde. Banville is slaving away over one of his own works of art (“Like a snail, I’m crawling over the pages leaving this horrible trail behind me, but some of the trail glistens,” he says.) But Benjamin Black continues to turn his dark gaze upon the world before him.
“When I was growing up, we all really only had one fear, which was being blown up by the bomb,” he says. “Now, the terrors that people have to deal with are so diverse and subtle and complicated and uncontrollable. Then, we all knew that no one wanted to die any more than we did. All of that has changed now, so people turn to crime fiction to find a contained world, one that is comprehensible, where things will be explained.”
The important thing, perhaps, is simply not to confuse Banville with his dark alter-ego.
“The thing about writing crime fiction is that Black does it as a craftsman,” he says. “Banville tries to be an artist. Really, we could do with more craftsmen and less artists. The world would be a better place.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.