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07.09.11

The New Master of Noir

John Banville is one of Ireland’s most masterly literary novelists, but his alter ego Benjamin Black prefers the mean streets of '50s Dublin. He speaks to Malcolm Jones about his latest noir masterpiece.

For the past five years, the Booker-winning Irish novelist John Banville has been letting space in his cranium to Benjamin Black. Put more simply, Black is the pseudonym under which Banville has written five crime novels, good books but so unlike the dense, witty books Banville writes under his own name that it’s rather as if Nabokov had been unmasked as the author of Dashiell Hammett’s mysteries. 

So the first question you have to ask when you get Banville on the phone at his home in Dublin is, just how does this odd-couple cohabitation work? Does either of them learn from the other?

“Sometimes, yes, Black will lean over Banville’s shoulder and say, oh, just leave it and move on. I think Banville has learned a little bit about spontaneity by letting things happen, not worrying every sentence to death.” the author says, “Or Banville will say to Black, oh, that’s an interesting sentence, push that one around a bit, and Black will say, no, it’s going to stand the way I wrote it. I don’t think Black has learned anything at all from Banville.”

Stubborn he may be, but Black has improved with every book, and the latest, A Death in Summer, is his best yet. Reading the books leading up to this one was to watch a writer—a very skillful writer at the outset—learning the rudiments of a new genre. Sometimes you got too much information and sometimes not enough. The narratives were often less than fluid. Not this time. Black wears the formulas of his genre casually, like a trenchcoat tossed over one shoulder. But he knows how to weave a mystery. Better yet, he knows how to create a first-rate sleuth—the ungainly, middle-aged Dublin pathologist Quirke, a man who can never seem to keep his nose out of trouble. Far from stupid, but something a plodder—a very dogged plodder—the brooding Quirke is, as always, driven by the “old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hidden—to know.”

In an acid aside, an old acquaintance disparages Quirke’s poking into the death of a newspaper magnate who’d gotten his head blown off by a shotgun: “I suppose he won’t let that alone until he’s caused the usual mayhem and annoyed powerful people and got himself roughed up and set everyone against him.” You won’t find a better précis of Black’s books.

Set in 50s Dublin, then “a faded little city with a past that felt far more immediate than its present,” the Quirke stories are more like the noir crime novels of Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain than the violent, superhero books of a Stieg Larsson or a Lee Child.

Quirke doesn’t even own a gun. “When I started out to write these books,” Banville says, “I made a pact with myself that I would write books with plots that could actually happen in life. I’ve tried to stick with that. “

I made a pact with myself that I would write books with plots that could actually happen in life. I’ve tried to stick with that.

Like the hardboiled authors he admires, Banville as Black is writing superficially simple books that are in fact sophisticated examinations of moral and ethical dilemmas. “Good novels always raise questions,” Banville says. “The more simple they are, the more profound the questions they raise. If you look at Chandler or Cain or any of those noir writers, they’re constantly asking, how is a person to live honestly and authentically in a world increasingly inauthentic?” 

The true villain in these books is the unholy alliance of church and state that ruled Ireland for the better part of the last century. “It was a very mean time, meanspirited,” Banville says. “One of the most awful things we’re learning about [Ireland in] the 50s is how many people knew what was going on and turned a blind eye to it.

“When I first started going to Eastern Europe before the fall of communism, I would arrive in a place like Czechoslovakia and think, I’m home. They had the communist party and we had the church. They were all powerful. If you give absolute power to people, they will do horrible things.”