New(ish) Crime Writers: Benjamin Black

by Harry on November 27, 2017

Benjamin Black has one thing in common with Sharon Bolton.

Black (the second of the ‘only counts as British because all Irish people who accomplish impressive things get claimed as British unless, of course, those impressive things involve some sort of successful military or political action against the British’ crime writers) is, in fact, John Banville. He seems to have shifted more or less whole hog from literary fiction to crime-writing under his pseudonym. The main series is about Quirke, a pathologist with a labyrinthine family life, and who seems to be a magnet for murder (Now I think about it I suppose pathologist is a job to avoid if you want to avoid all contact with murder). Christine Falls starts us off in mid-fifties Dublin, which is exactly the way that Henry and Maria sometimes suggest in their posts, and proceed chronologically. They are noir-ish in the extreme – it always seems to be grey and drizzling, and Quirke is depressive and not particularly likeable (his daughter is, but it is hard to see her growing toward a happy fulfilled middle-age, much as he would like that for her). They’re well-plotted, but that’s not the reason to read them – the characters and the mood, and the outlook on the world are what make them so compelling. Black actually has a wry sense of humour, but he chose the pseudonym for a reason: they are dark books. (I haven’t yet read the more recent—books).

I read somewhere that the first episode of the Quirke telly mini-series was greeted with widespread complaints that all the words were mumbled – one of the actors said that even his wife complained about it. My response was – wow, they have really tried to capture the mood of the books. Obviously on the page nothing is mumbled exactly, but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Quirk’s daughter (and the odd villain) ever speaking clearly. It was no surprise when Black tried his hand at a new Marlowe, The Black-Eyed Blonde which, though obviously not Chandler, is good enough that anyone who likes Chandler has to read it.

Oh, yes, what do Bolton and Black have in common? With the Flint and Quirke series you really have to start at the beginning (Now You See Me and Christine Falls). Its often tempting not to start at the beginning—most successful crime writers improve dramatically in the first few novels, so there’s no real cost to missing the first few (I hesitate to say this, but this is how I feel about Reginald Hill, Peter Robinson and even PD James and Julian Symons—the contemporary exceptions that leap to mind are Sophie Hannah and Tana French). But in the case of both these series the writer is already basically fully formed. Starting after the first novel will ruin the first one for you (especially in the case of the Flint books), but a whole lot of details of Quirke’s labyrinthine family life and a great deal of Flint’s damage and motivation will remain quite obscure, so you’ll want to go back and read the first one anyway.

{ 15 comments }

1

Theophylact 11.27.17 at 3:30 pm

Well, he hasn’t entirely given up being John Banville. His latest, Mrs Osmund, is a sequel to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

2

Layman 11.27.17 at 6:11 pm

The Black-Eyed Blonde was as good as Chandler without Chandler can be. And of course the Quirke books are lovely. Though maybe someone can tell this Yank how one pronounces ‘Quirke’. Is it Kirk?

3

Wild Cat 11.27.17 at 9:34 pm

SPOILERS:

Series is getting a bit tired, but “Christine Falls” and “The Silver Swan” are worth exploring. (Avoid Black’s “The Lemur,” a censored novella commissioned by the NYT. “Black-Eyes Blonde” was weak and at times self-referential).

Yes, the ruling folks in 1950s Dublin were a tad xenophobic, overly religious, sexual scumbags, and corrupt, but the message is overdone as Quirke’s journey progresses; it’s not suprising that he finds ultimate comfort in the breasts of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. (Hell, we even get a brutal book on Tinker culture.)

Have no intention of watching the miniseries, but if Gabriel Byrne is Quirke, that’s a disaster–he’s a better Malachy, the brother-in-law, if anything. Always pictured a big, lumbering Liam Neeson as Quirke.

Phoebe may be the most tortured female in any modern mystery series. Raped, jilted, sexually confused, lied to . . . .

Yeah, I read almost everything he does under his pseudonym, including his new mystery set in Prague under Rudolf II.

Keep in mind if you’re buying this book in the US, you’re supporting Bill O’Reilly’s publisher.

4

John Quiggin 11.27.17 at 11:57 pm

” ‘only counts as British because all Irish people who accomplish impressive things get claimed as British unless, of course, those impressive things involve some sort of successful military or political action against the British’ “

Similarly, New Zealanders count as Australians if and when they do something creditable. See, for example, Russell Crowe, great Australian actor and appalling Kiwi yobbo.

5

Dave 11.28.17 at 12:59 am

@3 I liked the Quirke series a lot, but agree it’s getting pretty tired. I found first in the new series in sixteenth century Prague, Wolf on a String, dull and didn’t bother finishing it.

6

J-D 11.28.17 at 2:39 am

Now I think about it I suppose pathologist is a job to avoid if you want to avoid all contact with murder

Forensic pathologist is a job to avoid if you want to avoid all contact with murder, but most pathologists are not forensic pathologists.

7

Patrick Coleman 11.28.17 at 7:35 am

I liked the 1950s setting of the series, but I got tired of the “when inspiration flags have the character light another cigarette and spend three sentences describing the process” trope. As if that were enough to create “atmosphere.” Sure, people used to smoke a lot, but retro noir novels like Black’s seem fixated on the topic.

8

Mr Punch 11.28.17 at 1:13 pm

The point about improvement over the early books of a series is especially interesting in Black’s case, as Banville was already an established writer – so it’s not experience or overall craftsmanship that’s in question. P.D. James’s career suggests it’s the genre rather than the series, as *An Unsuitable Job for a Woman* (new “series”) is not only good, but actually better than the Dalgliesh books.

9

Philip 11.28.17 at 2:41 pm

I enjoyed the Quirke TV series but haven’t read the books. It was well produced noir with good characters.

I am reading Sympathy for the Devil the latest in the Breen and Tozer series by william Shaw as recommended in the first installment of this series of posts. I like them a lot but I think that is the period setting, this one is set 1969 and that is a year before m dad started in the police. That was in a provisional force but he has a couple of stories of when he had to work wit the met.

10

Wild Cat 11.28.17 at 3:30 pm

@5 Agree, Dave, it was a slog. And that bodes unwell, as the second in a series tends to be a letdown. Plus the whole historical-detective genre is getting tired, and Black managed to make even the unusual Rudolf II dull.

11

Stephen 11.29.17 at 10:09 pm

‘all Irish people who accomplish impressive things get claimed as British unless, of course, those impressive things involve some sort of successful military or political action against the British’.

Trying to work out how that applies to Oscar Wilde or WB Yeats or Flann O’Brian or Seamus Heaney or Patrick Kavanagh …. or conversely, to Michael MacLiammoir or Patrick O’Brian.

And did you know that James Joyce was so keen to be regarded as Irish that he kept his British passport to his dying day?

12

harry b 11.30.17 at 2:10 am

Wilde and Heaney are clearly British, Yeats clearly not, the others not so sure….

That’s fascinating about Joyce. Do you know what Samuel Beckett and Alec Douglas-Home have in common?

13

John Quiggin 11.30.17 at 3:50 am

@11 And did you know that James Joyce was so keen to be regarded as Irish that he kept his British passport to his dying day?

Given that Ireland remained a British dominion until after Joyce’s death, this isn’t that surprising, is it?

Wikipedia suggests he had a choice between two kinds of British passports and that having the more explicitly Irish one created some practical difficulties

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_nationality_law_and_the_Republic_of_Ireland

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_nationality_law_and_the_Republic_of_Ireland

14

Stephen 11.30.17 at 7:46 pm

harry b: Heaney wrote, among many other memorable lines
“My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen.”
I fear you may be confusing ‘born in the UK’ with ‘being British”: Britain =/=UK.

Oscar Wilde: born in Dublin, son of an Irish nationalist, educated in Enniskillen and Trinity College Dublin; thereafter a career mostly in England, which was where the money was.

JQ: Joyce having decided to leave Ireland – the old sow that eats her farrow – for good preferred not to have a Free State passport describing him as a “Citizen of the Irish Free State and of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. He could have had that together with a simple British passport, which allowed him to benefit from British consular services, but chose not to. But in any case, he is universally regarded (even in Britain) as Irish: which further ridicules the initial statement that ‘all Irish people who accomplish impressive things get claimed as British unless, of course, those impressive things involve some sort of successful military or political action against the British’.

Indefensible, and I’m glad nobody’s yet tried to defend it.

15

download 12.02.17 at 7:52 am

Well, he has entirely given up being John Banville.

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