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(Sam Kalda for The Globe and Mail)
(Sam Kalda for The Globe and Mail)

When characters outlive their authors: How we breathe new life into old books Add to ...

So far, his different light is shining nicely. What’s murkier are some passing references to the First World War. Bertie and Jeeves first appeared in 1917 and frolicked right up into the 1970s in a merry England that, rather in the same manner as Agatha Christieland, knows nothing of world war or economic depression. Theirs is a parallel universe. Open a door to the real world with one darker reference and where do you stop? The lovely Georgiana is an orphan because her parents died when she was 14, in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915; that means Bertie would only need to be two or three years older than her to have seen active service. If a chap escaped the trenches by six months or a year, well, it’s the sort of thing a chap might find himself telling the reader especially after a snort or two of Jeeves’s Special.

Still, Faulks has set himself the easier task than Black precisely because Bertie and Jeeves live in a rose-tinted fairyland. Driving the streets of Bay City (as Chandler renamed Los Angeles), Marlowe also inhabits something of a fantasy world, but this is no Arcadia; when that California sun does shine it is only to expose the grime on the windows or make the lowlifes sweat uncomfortably in their cheap suits.

Mainly published in the 1940s, the original books were filled with the casual racial epithets of the era, albeit often spoken by nastier characters than Marlowe. Black sets his action in the 1950s as a beautiful blonde perfume heiress walks into Marlowe’s office and hands him a case: if her lover was killed by a hit-and-run driver, why did she spot him in San Francisco the other day? The Irish writer scrubs L.A. high society suspiciously clean of any African-American servants: one “negro” janitor makes a very brief and very correct appearance. Instead, Mexicans stand in as the hated Other and it seems likely enough, and thus not particularly offensive, that a private detective of the 1950s would dismiss two Mexican thugs as “wetbacks.”

What is an irritant for a contemporary reader is Marlowe’s sexism. Aping Chandler, Black offers powerful physical descriptions of all characters but the women are treated to a noxious kind of voyeurism whether Marlowe is salivating over the beautiful heiress or registering his disgust as her overweight mother devours a chocolate cake. It’s a kind of retro sexism that is appropriate but boring.

These are the tricky judgments and careful considerations the projects demand, but matching yourself to a master is also a grand game played with equal parts bravado and affection. Both Faulks and Banville/Black (the latter already well versed in adopting a second literary persona) say they are committed fans of Wodehouse and Chandler respectively. No, the prose is never as sparkling – Faulks’s is just a bit less fizzy than Wodehouse’s; Black’s just a bit less driving than Chandler’s. No, the writer’s literary imagination is never as engaged as it is in a Wide Sargasso Sea or a Jack Maggs, Peter Carey’s 1997 rewriting of Great Expectations. Still, the sequels are amusing things in which writer and reader share in the fun: you can almost hear Black gleefully polishing his Chanderlesque metaphors or Faulks giggling as he manages a particularly bubbly Woosterism.

In the end, their existence probably owes more to the literal death of the original authors than to the theoretical Death of the Author: time marches on and copyright eventually expires. Both are projects initiated by the authors’ estates and Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is specifically pitched as a means of introducing newcomers to the joys of Jeeves and Bertie while the publisher, Hutchinson in the U.K., is also reissuing eight Wodehouse titles this summer. One senses behind both books canny publishers with an eye on future sales of the Wodehouse and Chandler oeuvre; a dead body or two is not going to stand in their way.

Globe arts writer Kate Taylor is the author of A Man in Uniform, a novel that begins when a beautiful woman enters a lawyer’s office and hands him a case.

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