John Banville, it’s fair to say, belongs among the elite of contemporary novelists. The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1989; sixteen years later, the committee awarded him the prize for The Sea. He belongs also to a pantheon almost as elite — that of A-list genre novels. Under the name Benjamin Black he has published no less than six mystery novels (none of which, it might be noted, are listed in his bio page on the Man Booker site).
It might seem, then, that if anyone is to pick up where Raymond Chandler left off, Banville (or, rather, Black) would be about as natural as possible a choice. Chandler never quite had the pedigree that Banville has, but his influence looms large over the entire field, and a literary titan like Banville stands a better chance than most of recapturing Chandler’s distinctive touch.
That, presumably, is the logic behind the recent announcement that Banville will pen a new novel starring Chandler’s archetypal hard boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Unsurprisingly, some are skeptical. Malcolm Jones of The Daily Beast, for example, calls the decision “literary tomb-robbing” and declares that “no good ever comes of it.”
Of particular note, though, is a motif that runs through many of the negative responses. You see, the Benjamin Black equivalent to Marlowe is a pathologist named Quirke. His stamping grounds are Banville’s own home, Dublin, Ireland. Marlowe, on the other hand, is an Angelino; Chandler not only wrote about Los Angeles, but lived there as well. As Jones puts it:
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…
So what? It’s true that literary types tend to attach too much much significance to the advice, “write what you know.” Banville is not a pathologist and has likely never solved a crime, but we cut him slack on that point. So why shouldn’t he write about a city he’s never inhabited?
But mystery fiction is a bit peculiar in that regard. Jones’ sentiments reflect a more general emphasis on the centrality of locale to the crime genre. Many series hinge on their author’s distinctive take on the city that serves as their locale. There may be no better illustration of that motif than NPR’s somewhat fluffy series, “Crime in the City.” Each installment examines the seedy side of a different city through the literary lens of a local crime writer. The fact that the series has run weekly over consecutive summers shows just how ubiquitous a pivot the genre has found in civic spirit, no matter how macabre.
In part, that’s explicable by looking at the origin of mystery. The modern word is derived from the ancient Greek, mystes, meaning “initiate.” The term had largely cultic associations — mystery cults were religious groups oriented around a central secret that would only be revealed to the group’s members after they had gone through the proper stages of initiation.
It’s likely that the term first gained its associations with a particular kind of narrative via Athenian drama. The classical tragedies were written for religious festivals, and reliably centered on themes that for an ancient Greek would have carried heavy religious overtones. Legend has it that Aeschylus was chased off-stage for nearly revealing one of the cultic mysteries, and only escaped lynching by rushing to the asylum of a nearby temple.
Mystery retained that religious significance until relatively late. Medieval Europeans staged mystery plays, vignettes depicting scenes from scripture. One popular theme was the Passion of Christ. The mystery at the core of the typical passion play was the humanity of Christ as hidden in his suffering. That point was mostly lost on non-Catholic audiences when Mel Gibson attempted to reignite the genre with his film The Passion of Christ — though perhaps as much because the context had changed as because Gibson’s direction was bewildering literal.
Part of that changing context is the secularization of mystery. Under the influence of narrative innovators like Poe, Hoffman and Conan Doyle, mystery has lost many of its overtly religious trappings. Yet, the loss has not been total. The biggest twist in modern mystery may be that the religious nature of the mystery has, itself, been occulted.
In the case of the mysteries in the “Crime in the City” series, the city itself has become the cultic object. The crime and the investigation that unravels it are another ritual of initiation. To the reader, it can only matter so much how a fictional victim died, or whether or not a fictional criminal is ever brought to justice. The real object of the ritual is the hidden character of the unique locale, of which the crime and the detective are but ciphers.
In some ways, that city connection was first brought to critical attention by the distinctiveness of Chandler’s Los Angeles. As Jones puts it,
[Chandler's] 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.
As many have pointed out, the city is drawn much more distinctly than Marlowe himself. Generations of readers have succumbed to the allure, not of Los Angeles, but specifically of Los Angeles as explored by Chandler through the persona of Marlowe.
That makes Banville’s decision to revive Marlowe all the more ironic. It is not merely that Banville must conjure Los Angeles at second hand. The real breaking point may be that one cannot serve two masters, and Banville is already a member of the cult of Dublin.