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'.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Christine Dwyer Hickey: Last Train from Liguria

I seem to be on an Italian reading kick at the moment and what’s even spookier, on an Italian/Irish mix which chimes perfectly with my own confused genetic make-up!

Christine Dwyer Hickey is a best-selling, award-winning, Irish author who has up to now slipped beneath my radar - I tend not to read the book review pages very often and rely on word of mouth and favourite book blogs to get ideas for reading.  This one came from Dove Grey Reader - love or loathe her brand of cosy, country cottage fireside, everyone’s favourite aunty, blog content, you can’t argue about DGR’s influence when it comes to recommending books.  And she is always fair - avoiding books she can’t give wholehearted support for.  As an author there’s nothing I’d like better than to see one of my books on her blog, and I find many a brilliant read from its pages.

Last Train from Liguria is the kind of novel you lose yourself in - so rich in character and dialogue you never want the journey to end.  And the language is equally rich - as if the novel was written by a poet.  Does Christine D-H write poetry?  I wouldn’t mind betting that she does.

The two main character have both gone to Italy for different reasons - Edward escaping from a crime he committed under the influence of Irish Whiskey, Bella propelled there by her father who is embarking on a new life and doesn’t want to be encumbered by a neurotic, anorexic, spinster daughter unable to recover from the death of her mother and the conviction that it is her duty and her role to look after him.  ‘You’re my daughter,’ he tells her.  ‘Not my wife.’

Edward and Bella are employed by the beautiful, but mysterious, Signora Lami to look after her autistic son.  But as Mussolini’s dictatorship begins to threaten genocide it becomes necessary to make a clandestine journey across Europe.

This is beautifully written and it keeps you reading for the beauty of the language alone. I read it on Kindle (ridiculously cheap at 99p!) and I’m now wishing that her other books were available in the same format.