Author: Benjamin Black
Publisher: MacMillan Publishers Ltd
Cock your head to the side, screw up your face, close your eyes, and it’s not Irish brogue you’ll hear when reading Benjamin Black’s noir novel Christine Falls and its follow-up, The Silver Swan, but rather a thick Québecois “joual”. Maybe this is why I like them so much, but it’s little to do with setting: no pea soup or maple syrup here, no; just hefty doses of smoke, peat and whiskey, and the din of boozy voices in a pub at closing time.
The novels are a snapshot of a period when the arbiters of morality comprised the Church and its all-too-human representatives, who were perhaps all the more dangerous and all the less forgiving because they were doing God’s work. It’s as if we’re reading about Québec prior to the Quiet Revolution instead of 1950s Dublin. The city is a village, and everybody knows your business. In the role of Frère Untel (Brother Anonymous), we have Black’s hero, Quirk, an orphan unsure of his place in the world, a pathologist admittedly more comfortable with the dead than the living.
In his website, Benjamin Black confesses a fascination with the 1950s, a time when even the well-off probably weren’t all that comfortable. Society, or polite society as it might haven been called, was “paranoid, guilt-ridden, beset by fear and loathing, and still shuddering in the after-effects of the war.” The Church’s influence and taboos, social and sexual, are everywhere here, underpinning the plot of both novels.
The Church’s control over the private sexual lives of its faithful is its single biggest crime, the most far-reaching in impact, according to some critics. In Québec, many French Canadian couples found themselves the adoptive parents of Irish children whose mothers and fathers had died during the crossing to Canada. Parents and children were paired not by language or affinity but by religion. In the absence of birth control and sexual education, families grew and grew to serve the Church and tithe for it, and couples were made strangers as both man and woman worked to exhaustion to keep their swelling home financially afloat.
“What people do is what they are,” declares Benjamin Black. In 1950s Québec and Ireland, people worked to survive. In the case of Quirk, action is near inaction. Teetering towards the life of a drunkard, the man can’t stop himself. What he does is exactly what every addict does: he continues. He is heroic on one level and damaging to himself and others on another. Quirk, a giant bull of a man, charges forward, chasing the red flag while often blind to the institution holding it up.
Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of John Banville, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize. These two forays into genre fiction don’t fall all that far from his standard themes, a summary of which can be lifted from a 2005 review by Sybil Steinberg: “The protagonist of each novel is a man haunted by the past, and agonized by guilt. He is dismayed by life’s ironies. He is an educated man whose melancholy philosophical reflections unfurl in dazzling metaphors.”
Banville confesses he’s never been interested in stories but says this new interest in the crime novel is a return to the childish infatuation with storytelling. Quirk, then, is well suited as a protagonist. A giant man (a child in many ways) often cared for and fed by the people around him, he is an apt cipher through which to examine a world about to wake up to sexual revolution.
As a detective, he is not the equal of many. As an idea, he lures us in, and we, as readers, follow. The answer to the crime is right before him, right there before us, but he, like the readers, is unprepared to look at the truth. We aren’t ready to read the facts for what they are. These stories are not nicely tied up. That’s not how life works.
Georges Simenon and James M. Cain were Banville’s initial inspirations on his path towards becoming Benjamin Black. “Why do people do dreadful things to each other?” he asks in Christine Falls. Banville the writer toils at his art; Black the hack dashes the work off with a fluency Banville has never achieved. The novelist claims that each has begun to develop his own personality.
People are action, and yet the work we read isn’t quite as pared down as that. The writer tries to make less of it than there is. In this, an uneasiness with genre fiction and a tension between high and low art are betrayed. Rather than Hammet’s contracted style, we are given more of a Chandler. Philip Marlowe’s creator wrote: “My theory was that the readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, the thing they cared about […] was the creation of emotion through the dialogue and description.”
The description summarizes Banville the writer as much as it does Benjamin Black. Whereas Banville can only manage 200 words at a go, Black, he admits, is “a cheap slut [who] sits down and writes 2,000.” On Black’s official website, Banville self-consciously interviews the author and paints him as arch and all-knowing: “his gaze is steady, though is it blank or hostile?” One wonders toward whom or what, the hostility is truly directed.
Despite himself, Banville has become Black, and, through Black, he has risen to a new level of writing. If genre fiction has allowed him to come back to plot, unblocking an overly fastidious craftsman in the process, then we are all the better for it as readers. Rarely does such a gifted writer know so clearly what the reader of crime fiction craves. Hopefully, Black, like Quirk, will find it in himself to fail at stopping. In this reader, anyway, he has created a hunger he’ll hopefully satisfy for years to come.