Copycat Sequels

08.10.12

John Banville’s Terrible Idea to Write a New Novel on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

The acclaimed Irish novelist John Banville will write a new novel based on Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe. Malcolm Jones on why this is a terrible idea.

His publisher announced this week that Irish author John Banville will try to bring Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe back from the grave. This is a terrible idea.

You can see why someone thought otherwise. Banville is a Man Booker prize–winning novelist who already moonlights as a mystery novelist under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

Black’s mysteries are noirish affairs set in '50s Dublin, where everyone lives guilt-drenched, un-fun lives under the bullying thumb of the Catholic Church. His protagonist, Quirk, is a pathologist who occasionally gets roped into crime solving (roughly as often as Black needs to write another book) and who otherwise lives a lonely life, alienated from society in general and just about everyone in particular.

There are rhymes and echoes here. Marlowe was a loner, a private eye in a one-man operation in Los Angeles during the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Chandler, like Banville (and Black to a lesser extent) was a stylist, self-aware and so assured that he was his own best parodist: “She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me.”

No, even I agree that his vita makes Banville look like the man for the job. If only there were a job. But literary tomb-robbing is no fit occupation for anyone, talented or not. It’s not unethical. It’s just that no good ever comes of it.

For years, publishers and authors have conspired to resurrect a host of characters whose authors have died: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Sam Spade, Scarlett O’Hara, the Corleones, Peter Pan, and, in at least two instances, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The perpetrator in the Marlowe cases was the late mystery writer Robert B. Parker, and the results were execrable, but there is justice: someone is now writing “as” Parker and keeping his characters alive in new books.

Alive is the wrong word, of course. I am no fan of zombies in any way, shape, or genre, but here it fits: resurrected fictional characters are the living dead of literature. Everything about them is always at least a little off, like a copy of a copy of a copy.

Philip Marlowe, though, is particularly impossible to replicate. Parker’s efforts were laughable, but even the movies have not had much better luck. Bogart was OK in The Big Sleep, but he completely misses Marlowe’s really rather weird “Cotton Mather in a trenchcoat” moral outrage. Chandler himself thought Dick Powell at least looked the most like Marlowe. Nobody but Robert Altman and Pauline Kael thought Elliott Gould was right for the part. I would go with Robert Mitchum, who gets the character’s weariness and self-loathing just right. Curiously, Mitchum really channels Marlowe in a movie where he’s playing another character—Jeff Bailey, the doomed detective in Out of the Past. But consider how different all these actors are. 

Because Marlowe is always the narrator, Chandler never has to tell us what he looks like. He supplies some clues, but in the end, Marlowe isn’t an identifiable type—he’s a collaborative construct between the writer and each reader—true to some extent in any fiction, of course, but extremely so in this case. I have a very firm idea of what Marlowe is like, and my Marlowe, I’ll bet, is very different from yours.

In the press release announcing that Banville would be taking over for Chandler, he is quoted as saying, “I love the challenge of following in the very large footsteps of Raymond Chandler. I began reading Chandler as a teenager, and frequently return to the novels. This idea has been germinating for several years and I relish the prospect of setting a book in Marlowe’s California, which I always think of in terms of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Bay City will have a slightly surreal, or hyper-real, atmosphere that I look forward to creating.”

Alarm bell should be sounding at least by the time you get to “Edward Hopper’s paintings,” not because they aren’t congruent with Chandler’s vision but because the reference reminds us that mid-20th century California is a second-hand experience for Banville, something he’s read about or seen in pictures. Chandler was describing what he knew, what he saw and felt and smelled and heard (he and his wife moved from one Los Angeles rental to another about 30 times in the space of a couple of decades—he saw a lot of the city up close).

The vividness of Chandler’s prose always draws upon his personal experience of a time and place, and that can’t be counterfeited no matter how good you are.

Actually, what Chandler was doing was quite complicated, a sort of double-focus shuffle where he constantly compared L.A. to what it had been a couple of decades earlier, when he first moved there as a young man in the oil business.

“I used to like this town … a long time ago,” Marlowe says in The Little Sister, published in 1949. “There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line. Los Angeles was just a big, dry, sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good-hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum, either.”

The seven novels are really a series of broken-hearted love letters to a city that, by the time he is writing, existed only in the author’s mind. Still, the vividness of Chandler’s prose always draws upon his personal experience of a time and place, and that can’t be counterfeited no matter how good you are. (The same could be said, obviously, about Banville’s skillful evocation of the '50s Dublin of his youth.)

The publisher’s press release also says, “Along with Marlowe, Banville will bring back policeman Bernie Ohls, the gumshoe’s good friend.” This innocuous seeming statement masks a colossal misunderstanding of Chandler and Marlowe, neither of whom had “a good friend.” Ohls is someone Marlowe knew when he was still a cop, and one of the few cops who wouldn’t be completely happy seeing Marlowe dead.

The closest Marlowe comes to a pal in any of the novels is the ne’er-do-well Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye. In the end Marlowe is betrayed by Lennox (betrayed, in fact, almost as soon as the book begins, but it takes Marlowe the whole book to figure out what happened), so the story isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for male bonding. Together with “I’ll Be Waiting,” Chandler’s most exquisite short story, this is one of most beautiful descriptions of the failure to connect in American literature.

No, Marlowe is a loner through and through. A man who plays chess with himself wouldn’t know what to do with a sidekick, however gruff and lovable.

Over and beyond the particular wrongheadedness of the Banville–Chandler mashup is the much larger obnoxiousness of sequels generally—and here I am not speaking of sequels such as Gone or The Hours, novels that, whatever you may think of them, are serious attempts to mess with an established title’s legacy, to make us think afresh about the original. No, the kinds of books I’m talking about are books commissioned by publishers to extend a franchise, to take whatever is special or unique about a series and turn it into a brand.

This impulse to keep something going is at best mercenary and at its worst encourages our most craven childishness—clap real hard and buy this book and Tinkerbell and Peter Pan will stay alive. It is also insulting to the novelists whose work is extended beyond the grave, because it denies them, implicitly, the uniqueness that made us treasure them in the first place.

Someone once asked William Faulkner what he thought of the (almost uniformly wretched) film adaptations of his novels. He said he didn’t mind. The Hollywood money was good, and his books were still on the shelves, just as he wrote them.

So no real damage can be done to Raymond Chandler’s work no matter who proceeds with a new Marlowe novel. That doesn’t mean that all this endless sequelizing isn’t a shoddy idea—doomed from the outset, since any sequel is almost bound to be inferior to what inspired it, thus producing, at best, what the world needs least—another not-great book. Equally bad, the sequel racket encourages laziness among publishers. Instead of teasing out the number of 007 titles with inferior imitations, they could be spending that energy cultivating or at least searching for a great, undiscovered crime novelist or spy writer.

No matter how you look at it, it’s a cheap and rather shabby practice, and that matters in this particular case because if there was anything that Chandler railed against, it was anything and everything cheap and shabby.

So please, let’s hang a Do Not Disturb sign on his tombstone and allow Phillip Marlowe to enjoy his big sleep.