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Onyx reviews: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 04/02/2014

It starts with a dame—books like this always do. The minute Clare Cavendish walks into private investigator Philip Marlowe's office, looking to hire him, he's lost. She comes with good references (high society, a friend of a friend), but a dubious story: She wants Marlowe to track down a former lover who vanished. 

She's the femme fatale of the book's title, heiress to a perfume fortune. She and her husband have an understanding, as she puts it, or an arrangement. The man she describes as her lover, Nico Peterson, seems beneath her from Marlowe's perspective, but he agrees to take her case, against his better judgment. 

Then he finds out the lover has been dead for months. Peterson was hit by a car outside a posh club. The driver didn't stop. His sister identified the body, which was then conveniently cremated. Faced with this information, Clare changes her story. She knew he was dead—she was at the club the night of the accident—but she saw Peterson in San Francisco within the past few days. She still can't explain to Marlowe's satisfaction why she wants him to find Peterson, but he gamely plows ahead. If Peterson is indeed still alive, he must have had a good reason for wanting to disappear, and he didn't orchestrate his death on his own.

He bumps up against his old friendly foes from the LAPD, cops who don't appreciate Marlowe's interference but who generally respect his ability to close cases. He gets drugged and beaten up a couple of times, faces down hoods with guns and tries to figure out why the body count is increasing daily. There's clearly much more going on here than Clare Cavendish is saying, but it takes all of Marlowe's skills, endurance and powers of deduction to put it all together.

Philip Marlowe is, of course, the creation of Raymond Chandler, a detective featured in The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. By the same token, Benjamin Black is a creation of Man Booker Prize winning author John Banville. Other authors have played in Chandler's toybox before, most notably Robert B. Parker, who completed the unfinished manuscript Poodle Springs. That collaboration felt like a pastiche or a Spenser novel with the names changed. In this case, Black is working only from a title that Chandler noted for possible future use. The story is completely his own, and he ignores Parker's additions to Marlowe's tale. Though he's from Ireland—and he does manage to work his heritage into the story from time to time—Black has the American lingo of the 50s mostly down pat, though a few phrases betray his origins. There are plenty of astute, dry and generally bleak observations about Los Angeles, its population, class divisions, and life in general, and the requisite witty banter and heavy drinking.

The Black-Eyed Blonde, set in the 1950s, could be seen as a sequel to The Long Goodbye, and it contains many references to characters and events from that novel. Chandler purists may complain that this isn't the real thing, that no one can imitate or replicate the master, and in that they would be essentially correct. Black isn't Chandler, but he's a very, very good approximation, and readers who don't go into the book determined to find the few false notes should be able to immerse themselves in an environment that is at once familiar and refreshingly new.

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