Saturday, 27 August 2011

John Banville as Benjamin Black

Booker prize winner John Banville also writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.   His detective figure is a taciturn, hard drinking, consultant pathologist called Quirke and the novels are set in 1950s Dublin, which Banville/Black remembers as a dark place.
I've never been convinced about writers using pseudonyms to write in another genre - when the reader knows who the author really is, it seems pointless. But Banville makes a case for this - believing that Benjamin Black is another persona who allows him to write in a very different - much less literary - way. It's odd to hear John Banville admit that (as Black) he has suddenly been drawn to story-telling 'on the brink of old age' and that the crime novels came out of a fascination with the character of Quirke -  during the interview Banville/Black says;  'John Banville has never been much interested in his characters', whereas Benjamin Black apparently is.  The whole interview can be found at

In the first of the series, Christine Falls, Quirke is drawn into a baby-smuggling racket between Ireland and America through the involvement of his brother-in-law. Warned not to pry, Quirke finds himself a the centre of a criminal network using the Catholic Church's orphanages, which in the 1950s were vast. It was relatively easy in those days to make a donation to the church and adopt a baby privately - my own cousins were adopted that way.

In the second book The Silver Swan, an old friend rings Quirke to ask him not to do a post mortem on his wife because he doesn't want her body to be mutilated. Quirke immediately suspects another motive and his secret post mortem reveals that her death might not have been the suicide everyone has assumed.

There are three more in the series to date, Elegy for April, The Lemur and Death in Summer (just out in hardback).

The books are very well written - as you'd expect - but I'm not enamoured of 1950s Dublin, which is portrayed as a dark and violent place, and I don't have much sympathy for the dour, rule-bending Quirke. What the books have is a kind of honesty - the ends don't tie up neatly and it isn't always possible to bring the criminal to justice particularly where church and state are involved. There is also that fascination with character rather than plot, which is often missing in the crime genre. Apparently John Banville admires Georges Simenon, and you can certainly make parallels between Quirke and Maigret.  Other bloggers (eg Kimbofo) have suggested that the books are outside the crime genre altogether and should be classed as 'literary mysteries'.

1 comment:

  1. Oh very interesting, I love crime novels and I have not heard of this author or of his pseudonym, but now that I know a bit more, I will buy that book, thanks!