Man of mystery
Benjamin Black, the alter ego of Irish literary author John Banville, returns with A Death in Summer, his fourth detective novel featuring pathologist/amateur detective Garret Quirke.
You don’t hide the fact that Benjamin Black is a pseudonym. What does having a pen name afford a writer? How does having an alter ego affect your approach toward the crime series?
My decision to write crime fiction under a pseudonym arose out of the fear that if I published under Banville’s name, Banville’s readers would suspect I was working a postmodernist trick on them. I wanted readers to know this was a new venture I was embarked on, and that what they saw was what they got. BB writes entirely differently from JB—both in procedure and in the finished product. I haven’t yet decided what it means to have an alter ego. Nothing much, probably. We are all manifold selves, after all.
The book opens with the murder of a major newspaper tycoon, and his print empire looms over the rest of the story. You were an editor for The Irish Press; did that experience inform the book at all?
I think the only place where I consciously used my experience as a newspaper man was in a little scene early on in the book where a golf-playing news executive is dictating to his long-suffering secretary an editorial on the violent death of the newspaper’s proprietor. I enjoyed writing that.
While you’re clearly writing within the tradition of classic noir, your novels have a decidedly modern bent. What do you take from the genre and what do you make your own?
Have they a decidedly modern bent? They seem to me decidedly traditional, if perhaps a bit better-written than a lot of crime fiction. I like the genre, but on the other hand I dislike the notion of there being genres; to me, there are just good books and not so good books. Crime and Punishment is a crime novel, and The Postman Always Rings Twice is a piece of serious literature.
What kinds of liberties does writing about an “amateur” give you? Do you ever worry that your part-time sleuth is becoming a professional?
I wanted a protagonist who would be the direct opposite of a Sherlock Holmes or an Hercule Poirot, and certainly in Quirke that’s what I got. He’s just as slow and dull-witted as the rest of us are, and most of the time he gets things wrong, misses clues, falls over his own feet and will certainly never be a professional. Since the books are set in the 1950s it means I do not have to keep up with present-day forensic science and so on, which is a great relief, for I find the contemporary obsession with factuality a great bore. A pinch of imagination will tip the scales against a pound of research any day.
Why do you find the 1950s such an interesting time to write about?
The 1950s in Ireland was a horrible, soul-destroying, hidebound and mean-spirited time, but also absolutely fascinating, at this remove. Ireland was just like Eastern Europe, caught fast in the grip of an iron ideology and ruled over by half-crazed zealots who watched our every move to ensure we did not deviate from the party line. And then, life in Dublin in those days, as I vividly recall it, was pure noir: the fog, the furtive sexuality, the dirty secrets hidden deep. Banville gets quite jealous of BB, at times.
You’re particularly good at withholding information without leaving your readers feeling cheated. How do you decide which clues to reveal and when?
Will it dent your admiration if I say that, as in life, so in fiction, and that I just stumble along, making it up as I go? The essence of BB’s work, I like to think, is spontaneity, a sense of the contingent, of what Wallace Stevens calls “life’s nonsense” which “pierces us with strange relation.” From the start I determined to write crime fiction that would be true to life, as true to life as fiction can be. The jigsaw-puzzle crime novel does not interest me, which is not to say I don’t find, say, John Dixon Carr’s books breathtakingly ingenious. But his methods are not, could not be, mine.
When you start writing a crime novel, do you always know “who did it”?
In some books I knew from the start, in some I wasn’t sure. I liked that uncertainty; it made me feel quite close to my poor, dumb protagonist as he treads on the evidence and falls in love with all the wrong people.
What are you most afraid of?
As a human being: death, insofar as death means the loss of everyone and all that I love dearly. As a writer: the illusion of success, than which there is nothing more dangerous.