The appearance of Benjamin Black’s ChristineFalls on the short-list for this year’s Edgar award for best novel is cause for celebration. The Black name conceals the identity of John Banville, the distinguished Irish novelist, and winner in 2005 of Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize. For an author of Banville’s flair and reputation to turn to (fictional) crime is proof, for anyone who needs it, that mystery writing should no longer be regarded as an inferior craft. Banville puts it like this: ‘There is simply good writing and writing that is not so good.’ The idea of ‘genre’ has no appeal for him: ‘Good writing can occur anywhere.’
The late Georges Simenon was mainly responsible for the coming to life of Benjamin Black. Banville began to read Simenon a few years ago: ‘Not so much the Maigret novels, more the non-series books like Dirty Snow. I found them just extraordinary – I was astonished by how good they were. He had a genius for setting scene. The first three or four pages of Monsieur Monde Vanishes are superb. You should read it – it’s very odd, very dark. Men and women readers interpret the leading character’s actions quite differently.’
Once Banville had finished work on The Sea (which won the Man Booker; he had previously been short-listed), he felt the need to move in a fresh direction. ‘At first I thought I was just amusing myself, but I see now that it was a shift in my writing. I wrote a TV script, which proved to be the basis for ChristineFalls. It was meant to be a collaborative venture between Irish and Australian television, but it didn’t happen, and since I don’t like to waste anything, I thought I would turn it into a novel instead. But I decided to split the story between Ireland and the United States, instead of between Ireland and Australia.’
Long before he encountered Simenon, Banville had read most of classic crime fiction’s usual suspects: ‘Agatha Christie, of course, and those other polite English ladies with murder in their heart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey. Then I moved on to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Later I read James M. Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice is very dark, very hard, very truthful. More recently, I’ve enjoyed the Richard Stark books, such as Point Blank, written by Donald E. Westlake. The recent Parker titles are as good as the early ones. Reading the stories is almost like reading a Capablanca chess game. I met Don Westlake last year and he told me that he didn’t plan out his books. But you can’t tell. They really are very fine.’
Why write under a pseudonym? ‘Christine Falls was something different, compared to my earlier work. It was important to make that clear to readers, to give them a signal that this book would be more straightforward in some ways, not post-modern at all. I didn’t want the story to be subjected to excessive literary analysis, like some sort of Borghesian game. Besides, I think writing is much simpler than scholars tend to admit.’
Benjamin Black writes differently from John Banville. ‘With Benjamin Black, it comes from the top of the head. With John Banville, from somewhere between the chest and the groin. The way of thinking is different too. John Banville might spend a few days coming up with a couple of sentences. Benjamin Black may manage 2000 words in a morning. Writing as Black, I let the thing happen. Spontaneity is the key. With John Banville, concentration is the key.’
When he started on ChristineFalls, this spontaneous approach paid off at once. ‘I wrote a thousand words very fast and felt like a schoolboy at the start of the summer holidays. I enjoyed telling the story, seeing the plot-line go off in a direction of its own. There was a real pleasure there, it certainly wasn’t all drudgery. For me, crime writing is a craft that produces books I can feel proud of, like creating a highly polished table, or an elegant chair. The John Banville books I hate, because they are never good enough for me!’
Both ChristineFalls and its successor, The Silver Swan, are set in the 1950s and have as the central character a pathologist called Quirke. In the first book, Quirke becomes intrigued by the dead body of a young woman that he finds in the morgue one day, long after midnight. Soon, he is embroiled in a mystery involving the Catholic establishment and stretching across the ocean. In the sequel, Quirke is asked a favour by a former acquaintance, whose wife has apparently committed suicide. ‘I don’t want her cut up,’ he says. Quirke is willing to help, but spots ‘a tiny puncture mark on the chalk-white inner side of her white arm’ and finds himself compelled to find out what happened to her. Towards the end of the book, someone asks him ‘Who are you being? Sherlock Holmes? Dick Barton?’ He does not answer; ‘he only stood there, in his dark suit wrinkled from the mist, his head sunk into his shoulders, lugubrious, bull-like, intractable.’
The precision of Banvlle’s writing is what matters, not his research into mundane technical details (although he was ‘happy for a week’ when he found out the correct name for a 1950s car indicator of the kind he remembered from childhood – a ‘trafficator’.) He adds, ‘One of the attractions of setting the books in that period was that I didn’t need detailed up-to-date knowledge of forensic procedure! I’m not really keen on all the CSI stuff, I’m old-fashioned in that way. I like a book to be like real life, but not unnecessarily grisly. It’s a success if the reader says, “This might happen to me.” Life itself is very enigmatic. It’s a mystery. We’re all detectives trying to figure out what the clues are.’
Banville opted for an amateur ‘detective’ in Quirke, rather than a professional, because he did not wish to become bogged down in the routine of police work. ‘Also, I wanted someone who was close to death. All those corpses in the mortuary. I was fascinated by the mystery of being alive one minute, dead the next.’
Born in 1945, he was growing up during the period in which he has located the Benjamin Black novels. ‘If you’re writing noir fiction, Fifties Dublin is the place to set it – all that guilt everywhere! As well as all that repression, all that smoke, all that fog. It’s perfect. One enjoyment for me was trawling through my own memories. We all like to recall the past. I’m not into the science of policing or pathology. What I wanted to capture is the feel, the texture, of Ireland at that time.’
The early Banville novels, such as Kepler (1981), which won the Guardian Fiction Prize, explored scientific ideas. The Book of Evidence (1989) was perhaps his most admired book prior to The Sea, while The Untouchable (1997) has as its central character a man plainly based on the British spy Anthony Blunt. Banville agrees that this book is close, in terms of accessibility, to the work of Benjamin Black.
Even the greatest literary art, he believes, is at some level a piece of entertainment. ‘The highest and the darkest works are entertaining, however complex they may be.’
He recognises that awards, including the Edgars, are very important to writers. ‘If you win the Booker prize, it tends to change attitudes, as well as attracting readers. An award does not measure the worth of a work. Only time can do that. But winning puts your work before the reading public. There’s even betting on the big literary prizes. My accountant put some money on The Sea to win – originally it was at 14-1!’
Where did Quirke come from? One thing is for sure: he is not a self-portrait. ‘I wanted to create someone very different from me. Someone very big – I’m very short. Someone who can be slow on the uptake – definitely not a great sleuth. Someone who stumbles around, as we all do. In fact, one aspect of the classic detective novel that I don’t care for is the all-knowing detective, the Hercule Poirot type. I wanted my detective to be a real person, and I was determined not to write in clichés. Quirke isn’t even a very good pathologist, let alone a great detective.’
Originally, Banville did not plan to write a series. The first version of ChristineFalls had a different finale, which he described to me, and which sounds brilliant – but its implication is that we would not see Quirke again. He decided against a ‘Reichenbach Falls’ effect . Yet there is much in The Silver Swan that reveals what happens during the course of events described in ChristineFalls. According to Banville, the first draft contained even more giveaway revelations, to the consternation of his publishers – in the end, a compromise was brokered. My own advice to fans would be, undoubtedly, to read ChristineFallsfirst. It does seem to me, though, that the second novel is even more powerful than its much-acclaimed predecessor. It makes use of flashback, but the structural complication of scenes split between two very different countries and societies is absent, and the result is an even greater intensity.
Benjamin Black has changed direction with The Lemur, a 15-part serial commissioned by The New York Times. ‘Each section is 2,500 words long. I wondered if it would be a white-knuckle ride, like Dickens, writing each instalment to a deadline. But they wanted it all finished before serialisation began! It’s set in the present day, featuring one of those burned-out Irish journalists, not Quirke. I wanted to see if I could write a Black book with a contemporary background, and I found I liked doing it.’
At the moment, Black is enjoying a sabbatical, while another John Banville novel takes shape. There will, happily, be another Quirke novel before too long. He says, ‘Writing about him gives me a lot of pleasure.’ The flavour of the Benjamin Black books, and the precision of the writing, will be relished by a vast readership. And for novelists like me, who concentrate on crime fiction, there is much to be learned from watching a master at work in our field, with care and not a hint of condescension..