The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

read by Dennis Boutsikaris

It is a fine and difficult line to tread between homage and parody when attempting the genre of the American private eye. Robert B. Parker has famously been here before Benjamin Black, first finishing Raymond Chandler’s final Philip Marlowe novel Poodle Springs and then writing Perchance to Dream, which takes off where The Big Sleep ends. Parker has his detractors, although both books succeed in large measure, but Benjamin Black [Man Booker Prize-winning John Banville] has had almost unanimous praise for The Black Eyed Blonde, which it is to be hoped will send the reader back to the wonderful prose Chandler created and sustained.

The plot is sharp, the characters well drawn, and the prose is full of wit and grace. It certainly starts promisingly:

‘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.’

The observations, the simile, the implication that the long-legged woman might not be quite so ‘good’ as when she was a little girl, are all highly suggestive of Chandler’s style. And for the most part Black maintains this throughout, although some of the prose does sound a little self-conscious, and there are times when Black’s Marlowe thinks in ways Chandler’s Marlowe never would (‘I stand at this window a lot, contemplating the world and its ways’). There are also far too many references to characters and situations in the Marlowe canon, like the numerous instances where gimlets are the drink of choice, just so that we know that Black has done his homework.

But the above does not detract from the tremendous pleasure that The Black Eyed Blonde provides. And it deserves more than a single listen or read. Ersatz Chandler is better than no Chandler at all, and there are very few who could do it as well as Black. Moreover, Dennis Boutsikaris is outstanding – and Chandler is so much better in American.

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