Despite the title, this article is not intended as a forum for a continuation author to lament how unforgiving his critics are. Bad reviews are an inevitability and, in this instance, I’m the one bad-mouthing another continuation writer. I do not feel pangs of guilt, since the author in question is not only talented, but very successful and lauded in his industry. In other words, I’m an insignificant mouse picking on an elephant and that hopefully protects me from charges of betraying one of my own.
I recently read Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, the first Philip Marlowe continuation novel in nearly 25 years. I can think of only one nice thing to say about the book and that is at long last Robert B. Parker need no longer be disparaged as the man who wrote the two worst Philip Marlowe mysteries. I am a fan of Black’s original historical mysteries, but my familiarity with his work did nothing to convince me he was a good choice to revive Raymond Chandler’s classic private eye hero, particularly when a talent such as Ace Atkins is active in the field writing new Spenser mysteries that do justice to the originals.
While the Chandler Literary Estate selected Black, it is the author who bears the brunt of the abuse when fans are disappointed with the results. The Black-Eyed Blonde was an unused title found in Chandler’s notebooks. The title had previously been claimed for an infinitely superior short story in the 1988 anthology, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, an uneven effort overall that still fared considerably better than either of Robert B. Parker’s contemporaneous Marlowe novels.
Black’s book is mired in anachronisms and is a surprisingly poorly-crafted mystery, considering the author’s success in the field. Of course, even if the writing were better, the decision to make the book an unnecessary sequel to Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) is even worse than deciding The Big Sleep (1939) was in need of a direct sequel, as was done with Parker’s second Marlowe effort, Perchance to Dream (1991). Both decisions were either approved by the Chandler Estate or were handed out as assignments to the authors, respectively. Unnecessary and unwanted sequels to genre classics doom the continuation author to rejection, as happened here when Chandler fans greeted the novels with scathing contempt.
I do find it telling that the Chandler Estate appears to be only interested in authorizing late-period Philip Marlowe continuation novels set during the 1950s, when both the detective and his original author were showing their age. The 1950s are hardly the era readers conjure when thinking of seminal hardboiled noir thrillers such as the early Chandler classics any more than an over-the-hill Marlowe is the version detective fans wish to revisit.
I’ve read a number of reviews of The Black-Eyed Blonde. Quite a few take Black to task for not portraying Marlowe the way readers remember him. This is one criticism I take exception to, for it is one of the few aspects Black gets right. The trouble is Black is recreating Marlowe of the same era as Chandler’s final completed novel, Playback (1958). It is a Marlowe of a poorly-written final effort when age, alcohol, grief, and self-pity had clouded his author’s mind to the point where the detective did not act anything like readers remembered him. Inevitably, when a long-running series character is revived, readers turn to their collective memory of when both character and the original author were at their most vital. The tired and depressing Marlowe of The Black-Eyed Blonde is the one Chandler left readers with, but not the one we wish to see revived.
There was a buzz around the Internet in recent weeks over rumors that Lucasfilm and Disney were considering rebooting the Indiana Jones franchise with a new leading man in the role. Imagine if the rumors proved correct, but the studio determined to go with an older actor portraying the aged Indy of the late 1950s that audiences last saw in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Fans may not wish to see Harrison Ford leave his signature role, but they certainly wouldn’t want another actor to play their hero when his powers have diminished to the point where one can only compliment him by saying he’s in better physical shape than most men his age.
Consider the fact that this is the same decision inexplicably taken by the Chandler Estate for their three Philip Marlowe continuation novels. They have given fans a private eye ready to be put out to pasture, who is functioning as a relic of a bygone era and, to add insult to injury, they have forced an unwieldy continuity on the new novels by demanding they be sequels to classic mystery novels that needed no further word.
Someday, with a bit of luck, the Chandler Estate will assign a hardboiled writer who excels at recreating the past accurately. Robert B. Parker was a good choice to continue the series 25 years ago, but he was given thankless assignments that no writer could have handled well. Sadly, Parker has passed on. His successor with the acclaimed Spenser private eye series, Ace Atkins, could certainly deliver the goods for the Chandler Estate and do justice to a character and author whose shadows still loom large over the genre. The trick is he would have to be given free rein to create an original work set during the character’s prime, unhindered by an obsessive desire to reference past characters and incidents.
For now, mainstream continuation authors will find they have embarked upon a rough and frequently unforgiving road. The literary revival need not be mercenary grave-robbing or, worse still, an abominable desecration attempting to breathe life back in the corpse of the dearly departed. Okchon Van Ash noted there just aren’t enough stories about our favorite characters when her husband earned the blessing of both the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate and the Sax Rohmer Literary Estate to bring Sherlock Holmes out of retirement to meet Dr. Fu Manchu on the brink of the Great War. It is a sentiment many readers share, if only the literary estates care enough to choose writers who will do their best to bring their favorite characters back as readers wish to remember them.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). The Triumph of Fu Manchu is scheduled for publication in July 2014.