Review: THE MARBLE ORCHARD (1996) by William F. Nolan

Best known as the author of the science fiction novel Logan’s Run and the screenplay for the film adaptation of same, William F. Nolan is a versatile writer who has worked in several fiction genres and who has written a number of non-fiction works as well. In 1985 he wrote The Black Mask Boys, a book highlighting the stories of eight important writers who helped make Black Mask the most renowned detective pulp magazine of them all. Each story was prefaced with a biographical piece about its author. Nine years later he published The Black Mask Murders, the first novel in a trilogy that stars “The Black Mask Boys”: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner. All three appear in every book, but each is narrated in the first-person by a different writer: The Black Mask Murders by Hammett, Sharks Never Sleep by Gardner, and The Marble Orchard, under consideration here, by Chandler.

The year is 1936, and Raymond Chandler and his wife Cissy are living in the Los Angeles area. Chandler continues to learn and hone his writing craft by turning out stories for Black Mask, the magazine that has also been a home to stories by his friends Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner.

When Chandler answers a phone call from a homicide lieutenant requesting that Cissy come to the morgue to identify a body, he asks who the dead man is and learns it’s Julian Pascal, Cissy’s former husband. His body was found in a Chinese cemetery, and his death appears to have been a ritual suicide. A stunned Chandler tells the detective that he’ll come to the morgue, that he and Julian were friends. Once he confirms the dead man’s identity, Chandler dreads having to tell Cissy. When he breaks the news to her, she vehemently insists that Julian would never kill himself and urges Chandler to look into the matter to find out what really happened.

A mysterious woman in a white limousine appears at Julian’s funeral, a woman later identified as Carmilla Blastok, a now-retired actress whose claim to fame is a series of films that began with The Blood Countess, in which she portrayed a vampire, “a kind of female Lugosi,” as Hammett describes her. She retired after David DuPlaine, the director of all her hit films, was shot to death, ostensibly by a burglar he caught in the act of robbing his house. When Chandler meets with her, he learns she barely knew Julian Pascal, though the latter composed the scores for a couple of her films. She attended his funeral, she tells him, because she hoped to see her much younger sister Elina there. She suspects that Elina once had an inappropriate relationship with Julian.

Elina, who had had a brief acting career herself, has been estranged from Carmilla for three years, having taken up with an abusive former stage actor named Merv Enright. Carmilla begs Chandler to find her sister, just so she can know if the girl is alive and well. When he reminds her that he’s a writer, not a detective, she offers to pay him a thousand dollars, money he can sorely use. Thinking that Elina might be able to enlighten him about Julian and thereby enable him to definitively resolve the question of Julian’s death, he accepts.

And so, enlisting when necessary the assistance of his friends Hammett and Gardner, Chandler’s adventure at “playing detective” begins, plunging him into some situations more appropriate to his fictional sleuths than to a middle-aged former oil company executive turned pulp writer. One of those situations is reminiscent of a similar one in his novel Farewell, My Lovely, as William F. Nolan no doubt playfully intended readers to believe Chandler used his “real life” experience as the basis for Philip Marlowe’s fictional one several years later.

As entertaining a whodunit as The Marble Orchard is, the detective-story portion feels like one of novelette length, the rest a lot of filler. Thus the reader is given scenes involving real-life personalities including William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles, and Shirley Temple, among others–scenes that do nothing to advance the plot but which serve to fix the story in a particular place and era. The reader is given historical information about a number of locales within the greater Los Angeles area. And there is a secondary story thread involving an African-American man and woman that is clearly meant to depict the racial attitudes of the period but which is wholly irrelevant to the principal plotline. Fortunately, Nolan is a skillful writer with a smart sense of pace, so the filler is equally entertaining and doesn’t disrupt the flow.

Since I first discovered him when I was in my early teens, Raymond Chandler has always been one of my literary heroes. (The Long Goodbye is my all-time-favorite novel.) So enamored of his style was I that, back then, when writing a story, I’d often ask myself, “How would Chandler handle this scene, or this section of narrative, or this exchange of dialogue?” Ultimately I realized that developing my own style and voice, for better or worse, was preferable to imitating another’s. Playing Robert Louis Stevenson’s “sedulous ape” will only get you so far; eventually you have to (and should want to) come into your own. To truly write like someone else requires one to be someone else.

Chandler has had plenty of imitators. I personally think his style was among the most influential of the 20th Century and might very well still be one. Whether they intended to imitate him some of those writers might dispute, but the influence is indisputably there. Three who carried it off well were Howard Browne writing as John Evans (incidentally the name of one of Chandler’s pre-Marlowe pulp-magazine detectives) in his Paul Pine mysteries; Roy Huggins in The Double Take; and Keith Laumer in his purposed homage, Deadfall.

As a former editor of a couple of mystery magazines, one of my biggest pet peeves was the story submission that deliberately tried to imitate Chandler’s–or anyone else’s–distinctive style. Unless the author was writing an obvious spoof or one-time tribute, he or she was virtually guaranteed a rejection. I wanted to publish stories in the authors’ own unique styles.

To his credit–and he touches on the matter in an afterword–Nolan, save for maybe three similes, does not write like Chandler writing a Philip Marlowe novel. That’s because Nolan is not writing a Marlowe novel; he’s writing what is intended as a report from Raymond Chandler about events in which he personally played a role.

All things considered, then, The Marble Orchard is a good, if unexceptional, detective story embedded in a lot of entertaining and informative filler, and populated with a variety of colorful characters.

*****

Postscript: In real life, Chandler and Hammett met exactly once, at a dinner for Black Mask writers. In his biography of Chandler, Tom Hiney writes that Gardner and Chandler were friends, but outside of some correspondence they exchanged, I’ve never read anything that indicates they actually spent time in each other’s presence.

© 2012 Barry Ergang

A Derringer Award-winner, Barry Ergang’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. Some of his work is available at Smashwords and Amazon. His website is http://www.writetrack.yolasite.com/.

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