“The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel”
Benjamin Black; Henry Holt
Raymond Chandler is among our most stylized writers, an innovator of what we might call high noir, with its cut-glass imagery, its cynical world-weariness (although never ennui). Such a posture defines him — or, more accurately, his detective, Philip Marlowe — as a wise-cracker with repartee as sharp as a fedora’s brim.
And yet, the more I read (and re-read) Chandler, the more I appreciate his vision of Los Angeles, the “big angry city” he described as “no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness” in his 1953 novel “The Long Goodbye.”
This issue of place, it turns out, is one of the challenges faced by Benjamin Black’s “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” a new Marlowe book written under the auspices of Chandler’s estate. Black is the pseudonym of Man Booker-winning author John Banville, who since 2007 has published a series of crime novels that take place in Dublin, where he lives. As he admits in the acknowledgments, Southern California is a less familiar territory, and one it appears he had no particular inclination to learn.
“In all the Marlowe novels,” Black notes, “his creator played fast and loose with the topography of Southern California, and I have duly allowed myself the same license. Yet there were many details that had to be accurate and of which I was unsure.” The solution? To rely “heavily on advice from a quintet of informants who know the area intimately” — in other words, to outsource the legwork, which renders the Los Angeles of this novel inherently secondhand.
The same might be said about much of “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” which unfolds in the early 1950s, shortly after “The Long Goodbye.” In many ways, it seems a sequel of sorts, with Marlowe still under the sway of Linda Loring, living in Laurel Canyon, facing unfinished business from his past.
Why take on the territory of Chandler when Chandler was so perfectly himself? “The Black-Eyed Blonde” is a competent enough little mystery; the missing persons case leads to murder and betrayal, and the privileged are revealed to be corrupted, as we knew they were.
But that’s the thing about Chandler — the mystery was never quite the point.
“Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade”
Walter Kirn; Liveright
Walter Kirn’s new profile of the serial liar and convicted murderer known as “Clark Rockefeller” is no ordinary work of true crime and literary journalism.
“Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade” is the chronicle of Kirn’s ill-fated friendship with the con man. And it’s surely one of most honest, compelling and strangest books about the relationship between a writer and his subject ever penned by an American scribe.
Kirn is a magazine writer and author of novels such as “Up in the Air” and “Thumbsucker.” But he was an insecure and not especially successful writer when he first met “Clark” in 1998. The faux Rockefeller was a preppy bon vivant who claimed to be estranged from his famous family. A mutual friend asked Kirn to do Clark a favor — deliver a semi-paralyzed dog from Montana, where Kirn was living, to Clark’s home in Manhattan.
Like many an ambitious writer, he thought the charismatic and odd Clark might make a good character for a magazine article or even a novel.
“A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours too,” Kirn writes.
The great irony of “Blood Will Out” and of Kirn’s relationship with Clark is that the con man was doing something similar to Kirn and to all the people he met in his many invented roles. He’d take parts of the stories of the people he met, embellish them with details from movies and books and fashion tales about his own epic life.
Kirn offers a nuanced and less-than-flattering description of himself as a man almost asking to be duped.
It’s only when Clark was thrust into the national news by a child kidnapping that the full scope of his lies is made undeniably clear to Kirn and everyone who knew him.
The ending of “Blood Will Out” is at once deeply ambiguous and deeply satisfying. By then, Kirn has looked into the eyes of a cruel, empty man — and learned a lot about himself in the process.