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.