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The Brand Is My Business

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John Banville, alias Benjamin Black

John Banville, alias Benjamin Black

The Black-Eyed Blonde
A Philip Marlowe Novel.
By Benjamin Black.
Buy this book

The dirty truth about reading books when you’re in the publishing business is that it is impossible to do so free of preconceived notions. Before we read a single word of prose, we judge the cover, the title, the jacket copy, and we wager whether our friends were compos mentis when they urged us to “read this now.” We skim the reviews, analyze the blurbs and dig beneath the coded “marketing plans” to speculate whether the book has a better-than-even chance of selling more than a token number of copies.

Add a famous literary character to the mix, one with a secure, enduring reputation, and our prejudices (positive or negative) grow even stronger. The character comes with decades of baggage—not just the original author’s, but any and all adaptations, tie-ins, parodies and pastiches. It hardly matters what judgment I, the critic, render for you, the reader, because the character’s presence hovers like Dracula over Mina Harker’s bed, the tantalizing neck of the present begging to be bitten by the undead past.

Does that sound cynical? Perhaps. Publishers have become much like every other entertainment entity in that they search, desperately and continuously, for well-established formulas, work that is the same, but a little different. Standard issue, but with a twist. Something once dead, but with the prospect of resurrection.

It is thus irrelevant to discuss whether The Black-Eyed Blonde, the new “Philip Marlowe Novel” by Benjamin Black—the crime-writing pseudonym of the award-winning Irish novelist John Banville—is worthy of consideration as art. The very announcement that Banville (or Black, as I shall also refer to him) would be stepping into Raymond Chandler’s shoes pre-empts the standard critique. What remain are commercial lines of inquiry: How did the publishing industry arrive at this point, and why? What’s in store for the future? Is the industry moving into a feedback loop of repurposing old stories by new writers because there is nothing new to write? Or is it possible that, if derivative works become the dominant mode (a prospect perhaps more likely than we’d care to think), there will be little room left for the original, for works created from scratch?

* * *

The Black-Eyed Blonde is a curious example, because it is a repeat of something that happened twenty-six years (or a full generational cycle) ago. Back in 1988, the 100th anniversary of Chandler’s birth became the peg for the anthology Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. As editor Byron Preiss noted, “The contributors of this book are here to honor Chandler, not to steal from him.” If Preiss’s statement was more an ideal than an accomplished fact, the authors in question—once and future private-eye writers Robert Crais, Sara Paretsky, Max Allan Collins and Loren D. Estleman—gave it their best shot, wrestling with Chandler’s specter without ceding their own voices.

Some of these stories provide a tepid enjoyment of sorts, but they pale in comparison with the closing piece, by Chandler himself. “The Pencil” (or “Marlowe Takes On the Syndicate,” as it was titled by London’s Daily Mail in its original posthumous serialization in April 1959) is about as good as Playback, Chandler’s last completed novel, itself a reflection of the author’s declining health and stamina. Yet the story still carries enough echoes of Marlowe’s past glory.

Though he didn’t contribute a story, Chandler’s arguable heir apparent, Robert B. Parker, did supply an introduction. Parker wrote his dissertation on Chandler and applied his intensive study in literary homage to The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), the first of his popular series of Spenser novels. Spenser cooked and bantered with his psychologist girlfriend in one breath, then battled the bad guys with his hulking sidekick Hawk in the next, and readers bought each successive Parker volume in greater numbers. By 1988, fifteen titles into the series, Parker’s private-detective brand had also made a successful transition to television as Spenser: For Hire, starring Robert Urich, which wound up its initial run that year. And Parker himself was hard at work on his own, much larger Chandler project.

The result, published on the fiftieth anniversary of The Big Sleep (and the thirtieth anniversary of Chandler’s death) was Poodle Springs. The book bears a joint byline, as Chandler wrote the first four frustrating chapters (did he really have to marry Marlowe off to the maddening, simpering Linda Loring, introduced in The Long Goodbye?), which Parker duly cleaned up, fleshed out and completed. Ed McBain, in his review in The New York Times, echoed my thoughts on the book: “One of the true delights in ‘Poodle Springs’ is to watch this engaging writer as first he tests the impossible shackles fastened to his wrists and his ankles, then breaks free of them to charge exultantly down a road Chandler himself might have chosen in his prime.”

Unfortunately, Parker’s next effort, Perchance to Dream (1991), a sequel to The Big Sleep, falters early and never recovers. Whereas “The Pencil” dwarfed the rest of the earlier anthology, and the story prompt of Poodle Springs’ first four chapters helped lift the book to near-Chandler status, the complete absence of Chandler’s prose in Perchance to Dream seems to dislocate Parker, requiring him to reach back into the memory banks for Marlowe’s greatest metaphorical hits. Martin Amis, who would later write Night Train (1997), his own Chandler riff, dismissed Parker’s efforts in The New York Times Book Review as a “posthumous pseudo-sequel [that] never amounts to more than a nostalgic curiosity.” Thereafter, Parker returned to the waiting arms of his own original (if Chandler-indebted) creation. In true ouroboros fashion, Spenser—like Marlowe—has now outlived his creator: after Parker’s death in 2010, his estate chose Ace Atkins to continue the series.

* * *

Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea is the most oft-cited example of a work of real literature derived from another writer’s characters—and rightly so, since the novel is every bit as memorable as its forebear. Reconceptualizing Jane Eyre from Bertha Mason’s perspective, Rhys plucks her main character from Rochester’s pit of fire and transforms her into the vibrant Antoinette Cosway, who yearns for a life away from Dominica, the Caribbean island of her (and Rhys’s) birth, only to leap into a nightmare. But Rhys had explored many of these themes in her earlier fiction, and she also had more than two decades to break apart Jane Eyre, take what she needed, and sculpt a novel in her own voice out of the remains. Sargasso is that rara avis among derivative works: born from a singular obsession, not from the need for cold, hard cash.

If the use of other writers’ characters rarely transcends mere entertainment, slipping into the skin of some of history’s great thinkers can sometimes lead to art. Decades before trying on Chandler’s literary clothing, John Banville used scientific figures like Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton to find his early voice. Although Banville had previously published two novels and one story collection (which he now regards with disdain), the blend of poetic prose and considered wit that became the hallmarks of his later work were first apparent in Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982), which together make up “The Revolutions Trilogy.” But Banville’s work doesn’t appear to be especially imbued with or indebted to his Irishness. As the novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2003: “One suspects his heart is with Samuel Beckett, not islanded with native concerns and identity-mongering, but somehow modern, European, alive to the exertions of individual conscience, the light-changings of moral meaning.”

Banville has repeatedly said that he finds writing literary fiction—an undertaking in which a mere 100 words is a good day’s output—painful. This anguished insistence on precise language and the perfect metaphor were the means to justify his subsequent loose trilogies: one on the nature of producing art whatever the cost (The Book of Evidence, Ghosts and Athena, published between 1989 and 1995), and another on the physical embodiment of art as seen through the lens of middle-aged actor Alexander Cleave (Eclipse, Shroud and Ancient Light, Banville’s most recent novel under his own name).

Searching out clues for the genesis of Benjamin Black lands us at The Untouchable, which Banville wrote between these two loose trilogies. The poesy and mordant humor are present, but so too is a larger sense of story: the book revolves around the shenanigans of a fictionalized Anthony Blunt, who began spying for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and recruited, among others, Kim Philby to the anti-cause. But the plot mechanics and linguistic command don’t entirely gel. It’s as if Banville knew he needed to have two sides of the Janus, literary and commercial, to write something lasting, but hadn’t quite convinced himself. It would take one barometer of peak literary achievement—winning the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea—before he formalized the split.

* * *

The first round of Chandler follow-ups hardly sprouted, Athena-like, from the old man’s head. They couldn’t have gone forward without the Chandler estate’s imprimatur, which itself exemplified the “trouble is my business” line that Chandler made famous through Marlowe. Not long after the author’s death in 1959, Chandler’s secretary Jean Fracasse sued over his will, which left his $60,000 estate to his literary agent, Helga Greene. Fracasse lost the case the following year, and Greene looked after the estate until she passed it on to her son, Graham Carleton Greene (named for his famous uncle). Helga and Graham’s ambitions for the estate included film and television adaptations, such as Robert Altman’s elegaic film version of The Long Goodbye in 1973 and Michael Winner’s middling adaptation of The Big Sleep in 1978.

Sometime around 1985, the Bronx-born, London-based literary agent Ed Victor took over representing Chandler’s estate. Greene approached Victor because the agent’s eclectic client list—which included Edna O’Brien, Frederick Forsyth and Douglas Adams—augured well for Chandler’s legacy. Two things happened on Victor’s watch: enlisting Robert B. Parker for the new novels, and the sale of the estate to a private trust in 1989.

The next sixteen years passed with little excitement but a steady stream of income, since people still bought Chandler’s books. Then Chorion, a company that specialized in literary brand management, came calling. Under its flashy, outspoken chairman, Baron Waheed Alli, a member of the House of Lords, Chorion bought a controlling interest in the estates of Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Margery Allingham and a number of other crime writers. Chorion wanted Chandler for its list, and it got him once the private trust sold 75 percent of its holdings to something that became known as Raymond Chandler Ltd. (The deal was widely estimated to be worth several million pounds.) As The Guardian reported, Charion felt that it was time for new versions of Chandler’s stories. None were forthcoming, though Chandler’s longtime British publisher Hamish Hamilton reissued handsome hardcover editions of most of the Marlowe novels.

Chorion soon threw itself into an ultimately failed attempt to acquire Coolabi, another literary brand management company, in 2009. The scuppered merger damaged both, and just two years later, with Chorion hemorrhaging money and personnel, the company sold off its prized literary assets. By the summer of 2012, Graham Carleton Greene had reclaimed full rights to the Chandler estate. Victor remained its literary representative throughout the financial wheelings and dealings.

In 1988, he approached Parker to finish Poodle Springs because, as Victor told me in an interview, Parker was the obvious choice as Chandler’s successor, “one master writing in the voice of another master.” But the prospect of a contemporary writer completing Chandler’s work still rankled fans as well as purists. Matthew Bruccoli, the literary scholar and biographer who’s done extensive bibliographical research on Chandler, publicly scoffed at Poodle Springs, telling The Washington Post: “After four or five pages of the non-Chandler material, among the words that came to mind were atrocity, desecration. And then I turned unpleasant.”

It was one thing to commission authorized novels tied to a film or television property, a lucrative habit for publishers that took permanent hold in the 1960s, or to produce Sherlock Holmes pastiches, a practice dating to when Conan Doyle himself revived the great detective after throwing him over the Reichenbach Falls. Jean Rhys’s audacious Sargasso was only twenty-three years in the past, while novels based on novelists—like Joe Gores’s Hammett (1975), a masterpiece of crime fiction that holds up very well today—remains an acceptable artistic pursuit.

However, Parker’s assignment involved something more challenging than, say, John Gardner’s James Bond books, which were tethered more to the popular films than to Ian Fleming’s novels. As Victor told me, “I think if you have a jewel of a copyright, as with Chandler, you need a jewel of an author to take on the task of writing a sequel.”

That ethos informed his decision to approach John Banville about writing The Black-Eyed Blonde in 2012, but so did the more powerful impulse of convenience: Victor is Banville’s agent. After completing The Sea (2005), Banville wanted to try his pen at something less taxing, such as a detective novel (his brother, Vincent Banville, writes crime novels, and in the author’s note that closes The Black-Eyed Blonde, John thanks Vincent for introducing him to Marlowe and for showing him how a novel like Blonde “could be done”). Victor convinced Banville to publish under the open pseudonym “Black.” Just two days after The Sea won the Booker Prize, Victor sold the rights to Christine Falls (2006), Black’s first crime novel, in the United States, the United Kingdom and several other countries. Seven more Black novels followed, all but two starring the introspective, ruminating Dublin pathologist known simply as Quirke.

In an essay for The Guardian published in March, Banville says he was initially hesitant when considering his agent’s proposal to write a new Philip Marlowe novel, but later “felt the pull of an irresistible affinity”: “I have sought not to parrot Chandler, but to honour the spirit, vigorous, valiant and melancholy, of this master of English prose.” Whether or not he succeeded, the publishing landscape that produced The Black-Eyed Blonde demonstrates the stronger, more covalent ties that the present and future have to the past.

* * *

Every single employee of Random House’s American division received a $5,000 holiday bonus in 2012. They could thank E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey for the company’s largesse, since that book and its two sequels had sold so many millions of copies as to dominate Random House’s bottom line. James, we now know, could thank Stephenie Meyer and her wildly popular Twilight quartet for her characters and stories, since Fifty Shades began life on a fan-fiction website as “Master of the Universe,” recasting Meyer’s creations as the dominating billionaire and the submissive student. After some careful find-and-replace (or “filing off the serial numbers”), a light edit, an initial publication with a small press and the exponential effects of word of mouth, a staggeringly lucrative new brand was born.

Since then, major publishers have cherry-picked the self-published, the nominally published and, in almost all cases, the digitally-only-published for massive profits. Some authors have fared well: the erotic romance writer Sylvia Day moved from neglected mid-lister to self-published success story to a lucrative eight-figure deal for her Blacklist trilogy, while others jumped back into the self-publishing pool, calculating that they would fare better financially through steady royalty payments than lump-sum advances.

The result is a steroid-enhanced version of “the same, but a little different”: the continuation of major literary and commercial brands with new writers attached. Despite Agatha Christie’s definitive end to the Hercule Poirot novels, for example, in September Sophie Hannah will publish a brand-new adventure featuring the detective, announced with much fanfare by the Christie estate last year. James Bond has taken flight in the present day and the past, in books by Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd and Jeffery Deaver. Faulks more recently tried his hand at a Jeeves and Wooster novel,with the blessing of P.G. Wodehouse’s estate. HarperCollins’s UK division has spearheaded a retooling of Jane Austen’s canon, with Joanna Trollope rewriting Sense and Sensibility, Val McDermid re-imagining Northanger Abbey, and Curtis Sittenfeld to follow with Pride and Prejudice. Not to be outdone, the literary imprint Hogarth has asked novelists like Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Anne Tyler to write their own versions of various Shakespeare plays, and will start publishing them in 2016.

The project hardest to assess at the moment is Kindle Worlds, the brainchild of Amazon, the bête noire (and grudging partner) of so many in the book industry. The premise is that authors can sign up to write in the “worlds” of known book and television franchises like Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl, owned by companies like Alloy Entertainment, which granted Amazon a license and permission, almost certainly for a healthy sum. (None of the companies involved, including Amazon, would comment.) Authors can also open up their own “worlds” to other authors; in almost all cases, those who have granted permission are self-published writers or those under contract to one of Amazon’s genre-devoted imprints.

The oddest Kindle Worlds universe is the one belonging to Kurt Vonnegut. As of this writing, there are thirty-nine short stories and novellas available through Amazon’s Kindle store that incorporate characters, plot elements and story lines from novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. Hugh Howey, the author of the self-published science-fiction saga Wool, wrote a story called “Peace in Amber,” which injects his own experiences on September 11, 2001, into Vonnegut’s fictive universe. In a statement made last December, Howey explained that he had wanted to write his 9/11 story for years, but couldn’t find a proper conduit until Vonnegut’s world became open to him:

It was the autobiographical nature of the work, this exploration of Dresden’s bombing through the eyes of a survivor. I don’t think I would have found the courage to write about my 9/11 experience without Vonnegut’s work as an example.

It remains to be seen whether “Peace in Amber” and the other Kindle Worlds stories will bring new readers to Vonnegut’s backlist, or if the exercise is mostly propping up current-day writers at the expense of those who came before.

* * *

Benjamin Black had no such poignant emotional issues to mine when writing The Black-Eyed Blonde. If it reads like a literary challenge conceived during National Novel-Writing Month, at least it’s of a superior quality. Black is clearly entertaining himself trying to shoehorn his voice into Chandler’s, as is apparent from the novel’s opening sentence: “It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving.” The sonorous, obvious Chandler echo elicited a closed-mouthed smile from at least one reader.

Unfortunately, the wheels come loose a few pages later, not long after Clare Cavendish, a Black-created character, walks into Marlowe’s office and urges him, after paying the appropriate flat fee, to find her former lover. Black’s Quirke novels are more about atmosphere and character than plot, another trait shared with Chandler. But Clare Cavendish pales in comparison not only with the Sternwood sisters or The Lady in the Lake or even Linda Loring, but also with Black’s own tart, haunted creations like Phoebe, Quirke’s daughter. In establishing the inevitable professional tension between Marlowe and Cavendish, which will even more inevitably turn romantic, Black drops references to Don Ameche and Jean Harlow as a means of establishing time and place, a tack Chandler hardly needed to flesh out his novels. Even stranger is a supporting character called Mandy Rogers, the birth name of the Australian actress Portia de Rossi. The fictional Rogers, when interviewed by Marlowe in a film studio in the course of his investigation, even behaves a little like the real-life actress. As a hat tip, even an unintended one, it’s alarmingly apt—and yet, for this reader at least, a distraction from the book’s actual mystery.

Chandler’s casual racial and homophobic slurs in the original Marlowe novels can be jarring for contemporary readers: Carol Lundgren, a minor character in The Big Sleep, is described as “a pansy [who] has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like,” while references to “yellow pusses,” “slant eyes” and “greaseballs” abound. But those can at least be understood as a product of the world Chandler lived in and wrote about. Black’s use of “fagot,” however, reverberates with anachronism despite being technically true to the 1950s argot of The Black-Eyed Blonde. Perhaps this is because Black couches the slur in a moralizing tone: Marlowe sees it written on a “tired old sign” and opines that the barkeep “must have been thinking of some other word with one g, like bigot.” Likewise when Black shows Marlowe’s lazy and dismissive racism toward two Mexican tough guys—“for the sake of convenience, in my mind I called them Gómez and López”—before hedging it with an even lazier “Look, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Mexicans.”

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By the time The Black-Eyed Blonde gets around to its big reveal—one that marks it definitively as a follow-up to The Long Goodbye—it’s hard to tell whether this is ersatz Chandler or ersatz Black. It’s fun to see an author enjoying his temporary inhabitation of another’s distinctive voice, but in the immortal words of another iconic character (and Marlowe contemporary), Daffy Duck: “Was that trip really necessary?” Artistically, of course, the answer is no. The Black-Eyed Blonde exists mainly as a marketing tool for the two business entities jointly listed as holding the book’s copyright: John Banville Inc. and Raymond Chandler Ltd.

All of the shell games and creative licensing are, in the end, about copyright. None of Chandler’s novels will move into the public domain until 2034, the year the rights to The Big Sleep are set to expire. So long as an estate maintains iron-fisted control over a writer’s body of work, it holds the power to decide which new works are kosher (authorized sequels) and which are treyf (fan fiction). The moment the books go into the public domain, however, whatever fun and profit there is to be had will belong to the fans.

In the meantime, devotees of hardboiled detective novels might enjoy The Black-Eyed Blonde, but for the Chandler estate, that boon is incidental.

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