The Godfather: Peter Corris on (book) life after death
I’ve just finished Sebastian Faulks’s take on PG Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (2013). Taking up this kind of challenge … or perhaps accepting this kind of commission from a dead writer’s estate, more accurately, has become something of an industry among popular writers, although I’m aware that it has been going on for some time in the world of Jane Austen.
The first encounter I had with the mode was Kingsley Amis’s version of James Bond – Colonel Sun (1968). I’d read most of the Bond books with enjoyment, although aware that they’d tailed off badly to the lamentable Man with the Golden Gun (1965), by which time Fleming had wearied of the character, referring to him ‘as that booby James Bond’. Amis had written a study of the books – The James Bond Dossier (1965) and knew the character and the style back to front. Colonel Sun was good quality Bond.
Other writers tried their hands later but I was busy with my own writing and the next revivalist I was aware of was Robert B Parker.
Parker had written a doctoral thesis on Hammet, Chandler and Ross MacDonald and had the hardboiled private eye genre in his bones. His early novels, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973) and Mortal Stakes (1975) in particular, were outstanding examples of the ‘post-Chandlerian’ style. Parker’s character’s name, Spenser, echoed Chandler, who had tried Malory first and then settled on Marlowe for his protagonist.
The Chandler estate commissioned Parker to complete the novel unfinished at Chandler’s death, Poodle Springs (1989). It was unpromising material, with Marlowe married to a rich woman and living in a Palm Springs setting, but Parker produced a workman-like job. He then wrote, again in the first person as Marlowe, Perchance to Dream (1991). This was a title Chandler had considered for one of his books. Parker’s effort veered more towards the light romantic flavour of his Spenser novels rather than the characteristic grittiness and occasional racism and homophobia of Chandler. As far as I know there have been no further Chandler replicas.
More recently I became aware again of the Bond re-tread with Faulks’s Devil May Care (2008), which captured enough of the Fleming flavour to be readable and avoided the excesses of the films.
William Boyd’s Solo in 2013 is an improvement on Faulks and, if not up with the best of Fleming, a good deal better than his worst. Who next?
I never shared some people’s enthusiasm for Wodehouse. Mild amusement only, but Faulks had clearly soaked himself in the material and, as far as I can tell, hasn’t put a bally foot wrong, don’t you know.
It’s a strange species of writing but not an illegitimate one, like some others. Had the opportunity come my way when I was writing I wonder what cudgels I might have taken up – Arthur Upfield, perhaps, but I would have had to learn to ride a horse and to have got out and about a lot more.