Big pay- off in heart of dark­ness

John Banville’s crime writ­ing al­ter ego Ben­jamin Black does a fine line in noir, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE prac­tice of high­brow lit­er­ary writ­ers mar­ry­ing down for the money into the crime writer’s tawdry world, usu­ally pseudony­mously, is not un­com­mon. How­ever, John Banville has ac­com­plished it with a star­tling orig­i­nal­ity and with no sense that he is slum­ming it or merely sat­is­fy­ing some slat­ternly lit­er­ary de­sire.

It is two years since the Man Booker Prizewin­ning au­thor ( The Sea , 2005) emerged re­branded and rein­vented as Ben­jamin Black with his de­but de­tec­tive novel, Chris­tine Falls . And noir he is as Black, lead­ing us into dark hearts, murky hypocrisies and repro­bate sin­ful­ness with un­par­al­leled style and a won­der­ful, mourn­ful el­e­gance.

Usu­ally it is the other way around. Mys­tery writ­ers like to step out­side their ranks, in­tend­ing to en­lighten read­ers about the hu­man con­di­tion in ways they con­sider un­avail­able through their genre. They at­tempt big nov­els.

Crime nov­el­ists are as des­per­ate for rein­ven­tion as their char­ac­ters are for re­demp­tion. Dashiell Ham­mett stopped writ­ing be­cause he found he was re­peat­ing him­self. ‘‘ It’s the be­gin­ning of the end,’’ he said, ‘‘ when you dis­cover you have style.’’

Black has style to burn but, as the pre­cise, al­most Je­suit­i­cal Banville, ac­quired dis­ci­pline amount­ing to a kind of pro­tec­tion, a magic cor­don against ex­cess.

I am sur­prised, even a lit­tle non­plussed, by the rel­a­tive — and I stress the word rel­a­tive — ease with which BB writes his ran­cid lit­tle tales,’’ Banville says, re­fer­ring to his al­ter ego by his ini­tials, as is ap­par­ently his wont.

John Banville finds the writ­ing of fiction to be a la­bo­ri­ous and at times dis­tress­ing process, very slow, very painstak­ing, be­set by doubts and dou­blings- back, and end­ing in a state of slight nausea.’’ Banville the rather per­ti­na­cious critic loathes Banville the suc­cess­ful lit­er­ary man’s books: Not be­cause I don’t think they’re bet­ter than ev­ery­one else’s, but be­cause they are not good enough for me, and BB’s flu­ency seems al­most dis­grace­ful in com­par­i­son.’’

He does rather shyly ad­mit to ac­tu­ally lik­ing, a lit­tle, be­ing BB, the writer of de­tec­tive sto­ries: He is a crafts­man and I’m proud of his work.’’ Chris­tine Falls , a ro­man­tic tragedy so read­able as to con­sti­tute an all- night temp­ta­tion, told of the in­iq­ui­tous ab­duc­tion of a Dublin baby to the US in the 1950s as part of a plot to cre­ate re­cruits for the priest­hood. The mo­rose pathol­o­gist at the novel’s heart, Quirke, also stum­bled into the hor­rors and hu­mil­i­a­tions at the cen­tre of his adop­tive fam­ily, un­rav­el­ling a web of aw­ful se­crets when he poked at things bet­ter left alone.

The inim­itable Quirke re­turns in The Sil­ver Swan , an­other spell­bind­ing novel, in which a young wo­man’s du­bi­ous sui­cide sets off a new string of haz­ards and deceptions.

Quirke’s ‘‘ old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hid­den’’, con­sumes him again when he chances upon a nee­dle mark on the chalk- white in­ner side of Laura Swan’s arm. The del­i­cately pretty, now dead, wife of Billy Hunt, an al­most forgotten ac­quain­tance, a bulging sack of grief and mis­ery and pent- up rage, soon has the hot­shot pathol­o­gist rais­ing an­other wave of filth and mud.

‘‘ God, Mr Quirke,’’ says the chief of po­lice, De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Hack­ett, that wily old brute with a box head, carp’s mouth and shiny serge, ‘‘ but you’re a ter­ri­ble man for the dead young ones.’’ Quirke, the city’s Doc­tor Death, is a man who stands alone in his in­dig­na­tion, ‘‘ ex­posed, im­prob­a­ble, ig­nored, like a crack­pot shout­ing on

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