Friday, July 22, 2011

Benjamin Black, crime craftsman?

One reviewer wrote of John Banville's crime novels, written as Benjamin Black, that
"Black has improved with every book, and the latest, A Death in Summer, is his best yet. Reading the books leading up to this one was to watch a writer—a very skillful writer at the outset—learning the rudiments of a new genre. Sometimes you got too much information and sometimes not enough. The narratives were often less than fluid. Not this time. Black wears the formulas of his genre casually, like a trenchcoat tossed over one shoulder."

The article appears under the headline "The New Master of Noir."  Black is not that, but he does evoke a noirish setting, a stifling 1950s Dublin in which suicide is not spoken of, Jews are not welcome in the best circles, and gossip rules.

He handles another crime-fiction convention less well: that of the the apparent suicide that may not be what it appears. How would a shotgun blast have lifted the victim backward from his chair and across his desk? And why doesn't the first police officer on the scene, a detective inspector by no means stupid, notice the obviously difficulty of suicide via shotgun. Maybe Black is poking fun at the convention; I think he just handles it poorly.
***
Banville told the Paris Review that
"One of the reasons I love doing journalism—that is, reviews and literary articles—is that I can do it quickly. It gives me a craftsman’s pleasure. Fiction doesn’t do that."
Is crime writing like journalism to Banville?  I'll be looking for signs of Black's craftsmanship as I read A Death in Summer.

And he pays tribute to Richard Stark and Georges Simenon here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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17 Comments:

Blogger C.B. James said...

I liked the first Benjamin Black book quite a bit, the second one not as much. I will probably give this one a go sometime soon. I agree that he is not quite a "master of noir" at this point, but I did think this first book was well crafted.

I can't say how often suicide by shotgun occurs, but isn't that how Kurt Cobain killed himself? It does happen.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It may happen, but 1) this is the fictional world, not the real one, and 2) Once Quirke comes on the scene, he casts doubt on the possibility.

At this stage in the book, then, Black appears to have had a police officer miss an obvious clue just so the (semi)amateur sleuth can pick it up. He may yet pull a surprise out of this, but so far (about 100 pages in), it looks like a stale example of one of the genre's staler conventions.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

This is totally off topic, but I found this morning that I could not read some of your comments on my computer.

Using a Mozilla addon called Request Policy the problem seemed to be that there is some linkup to a site called blogblog.

I don't know what all this means for other readers, as it may be particular to my computer.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This is the first I've heard of such a problem. Thanks.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

It's not a big problem... just interesting.

I have difficulty working out the source of any nuisance on my computer and don't allocate blame.

If I find more simple ways of seeing where problems lie, I'll let you know.

If you have a moment, by might like to let us know what function blogblog acutually has for you.

I don't know it.

Have a good weekend.

July 23, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hmm. May give it a try. Just did a novel with a murder masquerading as suicide. This was a drowning, though.
I'm a little puzzled why doing something fast should give a person more pleasure than if the job takes longer. Is this a sort of a left-handed apology for the other comment? As in: I knock out mysteries double-quick, but they give me more pleasure than literary novels?

Word verification is "whiney" :)

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PaD, Blogger has been miscounting comments recnetly, an cocasional problem. I wonder if this is related to ytour trouble reading comments.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., my guess is the Banville is saying that his "Banville" novels are so laborious and so exacting, that he likes to take a break with something he can dash off.

July 23, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

He says "it gives (him) a craftsman's pleasure". You will note the distinction between craft and art here. Artists suffer; craftsmen experience the joy of having made (dashed off?) an object.
I'm convinced that there is no difference between crafting (journalism and genre writing?) and creating (literary masterpieces). The word "masterpiece" is derived from the crafts guilds of the Middle ages. A journeyman presented his best sample of his particular craft for judgment in order to be recognized as a master and allowed to carry out his trade.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, Banville hits the reader over the head with the distinction. One could not fail to notice it.

I don't find A Death in Summer quite the effortless romp Banville might seem to think it is. But I am willing to accept the possibility that he may find one sort of writing a refreshing break from another.

July 23, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

His mysteries probably make more money. Sorry. I feel grumpy today.
I do like Banville's style.

July 24, 2011  
Blogger Joe Barone said...

I liked this book. I've only read two, this one and Christine Falls. I thought Christine Falls was the better book.

July 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: What? A writer doing something just for money?

His style as Benjamin Black does not resemble those of two crime writers he says he Admires. Well, it does resemble Simenon's somewhat, but not Richard Stark's.

July 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Joe, interesting that you thought "Christine Falls" the better book. That was his first Benjamin Black novel, and the "Masters of Noir" article to which I link suggests that Black's growing mastery of crime writing culminated in "A Death in Summer."

July 24, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

You will note the distinction between craft and art here. Artists suffer; craftsmen experience the joy of having made (dashed off?) an object.
I'm convinced that there is no difference between crafting (journalism and genre writing?) and creating (literary masterpieces). The word "masterpiece" is derived from the crafts guilds of the Middle ages. A journeyman presented his best sample of his particular craft for judgment in order to be recognized as a master and allowed to carry out his trade


Peter, I think IJ puts that rather well. The difference between a craftsman and an artist is the same difference as between a janitor and a sanitary engineer. Merely a difference in terminology. And that difference is designed to improve the status of the individual. And with any luck, to improve the earning power of that same individual. I don't blame artists/craftspeople for trying it.

And I applaud IJ for putting the word masterpiece in a sensible context. Its current usage really gets up my nose, especially as used in discussing films, where the term is tossed around like so much confetti. Today, masterpiece is to objects what an icon is to people. It's a totally debased term, that only idiots can use unironically. For example: 'Plan B From Outer Space is Ed Wood's masterpiece'.

I do admire Banville's commercial nous, though. He realised in 'John Banville' he had a reasonably successful niche product, a luxury brand if you like, one whose appeal was based on exclusivity, but one which wasn't paying the bills. So like any good businessman he branched out. and created a different brand, 'Benjamin Black', one for the plebians.

A reasonable analogy would be to say that Banville is a Lexus, and Black is a Toyota, both of them churned out from the same factory, probably somewhere in Shenzhen, with much the same components, but whose differences are provided by branding and marketing. It's a good trick if you can get away with it. I wish him the best of Irish luck.

July 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The difference between a craftsman and an artist is the same difference as between a janitor and a sanitary engineer."

Very nicely said. I suppose a Toyota, while more than serviceable, just can't provide the thrill open to those who appreciate a fine ca-- I mean, automobile.

July 24, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Thanks, Solo. :) But, you know, as a writer I'd rather not be compared to a sanitary engineer. For some reason that job description reeks far more than "janitor." Janitor is derived from "gate" or "door". I'd much rather be the one who opens doors.

July 25, 2011  

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