The Booker Prize-winner John Banville is turning his back on literary fiction — he’s enjoying writing crime novels too much
“I’m gentrifying the crime novel,” proclaims John Banville. “My aim is to turn crime fiction into a literary form.” The Irish author’s shift from prize-winning heavyweight to genre-fiction bestseller is one of the more unexpected twists in an illustrious career.
The winner of the 2005 Man Booker prize for The Sea and several other awards, Banville is frequently listed among the runners and riders in contention for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2006, he began writing detective novels featuring morose pathologist Quirke – played on television by Gabriel Byrne – under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. More recently, he has published them under his own name, teaming Quirke with DI St John Stafford for a series of elegant adventures set in 1950s Ireland. “I invented Stafford because I got bored of Quirke – he’s so bloody gloomy!” says Banville of his creation, from his home in Dublin. “Stafford is an Anglo-Irish Protestant, the son of a big house, and such a person would never have been a police detective in 1950s Ireland. It’s an impossibility, and I like that about him. And what I like about Quirke is that he’s completely incompetent. He wouldn’t recognise a clue if it bit him on the leg. I like my pair of shambling amateurs. They’re human beings like the rest of us. They do their best.”
Their latest investigation, The Lock-Up, takes place in 1957, in the Ireland of Banville’s youth. “It was effectively a totalitarian state,” he says of the country then. “The Church had absolute control, and the State was hand in glove with the Church. We were all brainwashed.”
‘You can make things up… in one book, I hadn’t a clue who had done the killing’
A young woman, Rosa, is found gassed in her car. It appears to be a suicide until Quirke’s autopsy suggests otherwise, and a layered story unspools embracing race, class, sex and feminism. For Banville, the whodunnit aspect is less important than the evocation of character and place. “I’m with Raymond Chandler: I don’t particularly care who killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe,” he says. “The plot is secondary. It’s all about people, human beings and their failings, their secrets and their crimes.”
Does that mean he doesn’t plan out every detail of the story in advance? He laughs. “This is one of the joys of writing crime fiction: you can make things up and change your mind instantaneously. There’s a wonderful childish pleasure in that. In one book, I was two days from the end and I hadn’t a clue who had done the killing. For The Lock-Up, I went to a writer’s centre and gave myself a week to finish the book. I was leaving on Saturday lunchtime, and on Friday evening I decided I wasn’t happy with the way it was going. Then I had a brilliant idea, and I sat down next morning and wrote the last chapter.” Such spontaneity is at odds with Banville’s painstaking approach to his literary novels – such as The Sea and The Singularities, published last year – in which a single line can take a day to write. Those labours are now in the past, he says. “The Singularities was my last book of that kind. It took me six years to write, and I’m 77. As the Americans say, ‘Do the math’. Now I’m writing crime fiction, but doing it differently.”
Banville’s move into genre fiction hasn’t always endeared him to the crime-writing community. He has little time for his contemporaries – “I don’t read them; I tried and then gave up” – preferring the company of old masters such as Chandler and Georges Simenon. Appearing at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, his assertion that he wrote his crime books much more quickly than his literary novels implied that he was slumming it. Cue uproar. “They all hate me! I started writing these books and they all got very annoyed when I said that I wrote them quickly. But Simenon wrote his books in ten days. I don’t see anyone complaining about Simenon, so why me?”
He fears that less bulletproof writers are living through a more censorious age. “I would not like to be a young writer now,” he says. “I’m pretty well impregnable – I’m not on Twitter or social media, I don’t read reviews, I don’t care what anyone says about me. Why bother? But I can imagine younger writers are terrified of saying something someone doesn’t like. I was talking to a writer the other day, I won’t say his name, who was almost in tears because of what people were saying about him on Twitter.” He sighs. “Can you imagine? God almighty!”
R ather than navigating Twitter, Banville is happily dreaming up further adventures for Quirke and Stafford. “When I was a teenager, I’d take my dog for a walk in the fields and tell myself stories and act out little plays; in a way, that’s what I’m doing again. I’m having a second childhood of playing with stories, characters and plots. Writing is never easy, but I do like making up things.”
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