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Reality bites for copycats

You would think that writers who have slogged hard all their lives might be allowed to rest in peace once they have died.

But sadly, that is not the case. Not only have some of the greatest novelists of the 19th century had their literary graves robbed for sequels, prequels and rewrites - Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Bronte among them - but a few of the most popular and prolific of last century's novelists are now victims of this bodysnatching trade.

First it was Ian Fleming's Bond, then PG Wodehouse, and now it is Raymond Chandler who has been resurrected like Lazarus by an anointed (and well-paid) successor, as the executors of their literary estates see a way of keeping the writer's flame, and fortune, alive.

Irish Booker-winning novelist John Banville is the latest to step into the echo chamber. Commissioned to write 'a Philip Marlowe novel', and working under his crime-writing pseudonym Benjamin Black, he has taken one of the titles Chandler was planning to use for an as yet unwritten book, and breathed the voice of the old master into a new tale.

Or, he has tried to. Set in the 1950s, in a Los Angeles heatwave, it opens with a familiar scenario, Marlowe in his dingy office, waiting for somebody to call. "It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it's being watched..."

Shortly after, a woman arrives. No ordinary gal, she hails from the upper realms of Los Angeles society and is beautiful beyond compare, not least because of the black eyes of the title. Never one to let a good looking dame slip through his fingers, Marlowe is hooked. Unhappily married, Clare Cavendish asks him to find out what has happened to her lover Nico Peterson, who has disappeared. Marlowe states his fees and takes the case, but very soon discovers Peterson was killed in a hit and run some weeks earlier. When he breaks the news to her, Clare Cavendish tells him she already knew this; but that she happened to see him in San Francisco a few days before, looking remarkably alive. She is perplexed, as is Marlowe, this being the first of many occasions when he thinks his client more slippery than she first appeared.

The story thickens, introducing a motley cast of theatrical characters, such as the heroine's Irish brogue-speaking mother: "under her clothes, she might have been sitting in a barrel with holes cut in it for her arms and legs to stick out through". Benjamin Black has obviously enjoyed setting the scene, which he does with panache, but he wisely does not attempt parody. Sustaining that over a chapter is just about manageable. Across 300 pages, it would have the reader holding their breath, as if watching a tightrope walker crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, waiting for him to fall.

Thus, while there are some crisp one-liners that approach Chandler's effortless brio, especially in the early chapters, Black cannot emulate Chandler's world-weary, street-wise charm. Nor his gossamer tone. Though he fleetingly captures Marlowe of yore, as when he sits in a leather armchair in an exclusive club - "it was so deep my knees nearly gave me an uppercut", or observes of a wet afternoon, "the rain was making the water in the lake look like a bed of nails" - Black's forte is in mood, and the narrator's sense of ennui, confusion, or fear.

And there is much in this tightly-plotted novel that is dangerous, and far from funny. At times, Black seems to struggle to keep the voice chirpy, and when he hits a fatal longueur mid-way, one feels the author is battling fatigue every bit as much as his hero. Add to this an unconvincingly besotted Marlowe, for whom lust is what used to spark his engine, not tongue-tied love, and The Black-Eyed Blonde is soon more Benjamin Black than Chandler.

How could it be otherwise? There will only ever be one Chandler, Fleming, or Wodehouse. Writers are not putty, to be reshaped by a new hand. Amusing and clever as their imitators may be, the originals should rest easy, safe in the knowledge they are irreplaceable.

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