Using whatever name, author John Banville cuts to dark heart of the matter

Irish author John Banville writes his literary novels in longhand with a fountain pen; his alter ego, Benjamin Black, writes crime fiction on a computer.
Irish author John Banville writes his literary novels in longhand with a fountain pen; his alter ego, Benjamin Black, writes crime fiction on a computer.
Published Aug. 13, 2013

With John Banville, you get two authors in one. And now there are three.

Under his own name, the Irish writer creates brilliant, luminous and intellectual literary novels like The Sea, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2005. He's also a playwright, screenwriter, journalist and take-no-prisoners book reviewer.

Banville, 67, has also published six novels as Benjamin Black, a series of darkly atmospheric noir mysteries set in Dublin in the 1950s. Their main character, a pathologist with a troubled past (and present) and the single name Quirke, appears for a seventh time in Black's gripping, terrific new novel, Holy Orders. A BBC series based on the books, Quirke, is now in production, with Gabriel Byrne in the title role.

And the third authorial identity? In March, Benjamin Black will publish The Black-Eyed Blonde. The novel's protagonist is Philip Marlowe, one of the most revered progenitors of the tough detective character and the indelible creation of the great Raymond Chandler. Marlowe appeared in seven novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939; Black's novel about him is sanctioned by the Chandler estate. So, that's Banville as Black channeling Chandler.

Banville was kind enough to answer my questions via email from Paris, where he was taking "a short break."

Although it shares the vivid settings, evocative mood and striking characters of the earlier Quirke novels, Holy Orders has a tighter, more intricate plot — so much so I'm finding it difficult to come up with questions about specific details in the novel that aren't spoilers. Was that emphasis on plot a deliberate move, and, if so, why did you take that direction?

I must confess to you that when I finish a book I am always convinced it is the worst thing I've ever written. Holy Orders was no exception, but I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise. I don't think I concentrated on plot in this book any more than I have done in the past. I was interested by the "tinkers" — they are called travellers now — but was a little worried that I didn't know enough about their world. However, recently I met a retired priest — I didn't know priests retired, did you? — who had worked with travellers and he told me I had got them just right. Very gratifying, of course. I really don't plan much ahead. When I start a Quirke book I have a general outline of the plot in my head, but I trust happenstance to guide me in the details. I hope this gives the books something of the messily contingent nature of real life.

Although many elements in Holy Orders are related to contemporary issues, it's set in the 1950s. Why did you choose that era for the Quirke novels?

The 1950s, especially in Ireland, is an ideal period in which to set noir fiction. All that bad weather, cigarette smoke, oodles of drink, and dark, dark secrets, deeply hidden. ... I was born in 1945 so I had my childhood in the '50s. It is interesting and amusing to trawl my earliest memories to see what nuggets of gold I can come up with from the period. But mainly it is the secrecy of the time that fascinates me. The essential, characteristic gesture that I remember from that time is an index finger pressed urgently to lips: "Ssh! Say nothing."

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Do you have any involvement in the upcoming BBC series Quirke? How do you feel about the casting of Gabriel Byrne as the title character?

I had no involvement at all in the BBC series. The scripts were written by Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson, and I could not have asked for better than that. Gabriel Byrne is superb as Quirke. I've only seen the first episode, but he is the real thing. Overall it's marvelously atmospheric and full of tension. And the rest of the cast is perfect. I could pick out names, but it would be invidious. Although I can say that Dublin is one of the main actors, and gives an amazing performance.

You've said in interviews that your writing methods as John Banville, author of literary fiction, are very different from those of Benjamin Black, crime fiction writer. Which one wrote The Black-Eyed Blonde, or did another persona emerge for that task?

Nice question. It's certainly Black's work, but in a new dimension. I've been reading Chandler since I was a teenager and it was a thrill — if slightly unnerving — to try to write in his voice. Or no, that's not quite it. From the start I agreed with myself that I would not attempt to parrot Chandler, but would work in what I hope is the spirit of his books. I'm absurdly pleased with the result — despite what I said above about worrying that everything I write is a fiasco — and I feel I haven't betrayed Chandler. Though no doubt aficionados will say otherwise. And why not? I admire loyalty to a beloved author.

Quirke has a rich, complex personal and familial history that often plays a part in his investigations. Philip Marlowe, on the other hand, is a man without a personal past. Have you written a back story for him?

No. The essence of Marlowe is his solitude — indeed, his loneliness, of which he is only half aware. He can't have a family, or family ties — although Chandler did get him married, which never convinced me. Marlowe's is a tender sensibility wounded by the world's wickedness. He tries to do what he can, in his small way, to ameliorate the general awfulness, but rarely succeeds. I admired Marlowe before, but now that I've written The Black-Eyed Blonde I sort of love him. Does that sound impossibly soppy?

After the Marlowe book, what will your next book be?

I've been writing a John Banville book for the past couple of years — on and off, obviously — and now I'm going to get down to that in a serious way. Also I'm mulling over my next Quirke book. I suspect it will feature Quirke's daughter Phoebe in a pivotal role — though I'm not sure how. What larks, eh?