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 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