Monday, July 25, 2011

Black and Burke

Declan Burke's and Benjamin Black's latest novels just happened to fall into my lap around the same time, but the coincidence is apt.

Burke was probably the first person to get me thinking that Black (who calls himself John Banville when creating art) might be something other than a condescending shit when it comes to crime writing.  His interview of Banville in Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century reveals the two writers' common ambition to do something different with the crime novel, and Banville comes across as almost charming, which is not always the case with him.  This suggests to me that Burke and Banville are to some extent kindred spirits.

The circumstantial evidence is there. Banville says that when he adopted the Black persona, he vowed to avoid clichés. Burke says that
"you won’t find in [Absolute Zero Cool] what seems to me to have become, if I may be so bold as to make sweeping generalisations, the defining characteristic of the vast majority of contemporary crime novels, which is, however well written any book is, the simplistic pieties of some liberal sadist masquerading as an authentic exploration of modern society, but which is first and foremost designed to ring bells on cash registers."
 Black steers clear of clichés for the most part in A Death in Summer, which makes the occasional lapse all the more noticeable. One such mars the novel's most nervously beautiful scene so far.

The oddest coincidence, and one that may mean absolutely nothing, is that an unusually high number of scenes in both books end with "But he/she/name of character wasn't listening."

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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22 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I'm thinking old Benny maybe shouldn't churn them out quite as fast as he claims to.

July 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe, since he thinks of crime writing as a craft, as opposed to the art of his Banville novels, he simply has not yet attained mastery.

July 26, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Where's the quote for the novel's most beautiful scene with a cliche?

July 26, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

"...the simplistic pieties of some liberal sadist masquerading as an authentic exploration of modern society..."

Well, that pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? That's the plateau most crime fiction has settled on.

A lot of it could be called excellent craftsmanship...

July 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I didn't have the novel with me when I made the post. In any case, I'd have had to quote at great length to convey the scene's flavor. The scene's essence is the pathologist Quirke's growing impatience with a frazzled, bitter woman's pestering him with some unworkable request. The slow accumulaiuton of detail makes the scene work, rather than any one memorable description.

The crime fiction cliché is that the woman casually mentions a piece of information that conflicts with something Quirke has learned elsewhere:

"Us?"

"Her and me--her ladyship, Mrs. J."

"I thought she came later, from Dublin."

"Did she?" Her eyes grew vague. "I don't know. I thought she was there. It's all gone blurred in my mind."


A neon sign might as well flash CLUE!!! in that last sentence. It's not necessarily a bad sentence, but it's an utterly conventional crime-fiction device -- not the sort of thing one expects from someone who proclaims that he will avoid clichés.

July 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, somehow I could not help thinking about one particular Swedish crime writer when I read that sentence, though his craftsmanship is often called into question, at least with respect to his first book.

July 26, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ah, yes. I get you. Thanks. Much better to just have her run on with other stuff after "Mrs. J.". And let the detective start puzzling it out later. I haven't read the book, but the "It's all gone blurred in my mind" signals guilt.
Still, you know, Banville probably doesn't think escaping your sharp-eyed reviewing is an absolute necessity for writing a successful crime novel.

Would you be pickier with someone like Banville? I probably would. Famous people have to live up to their reputations.

July 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, he probably does not think he has to cater to me. And perhaps I am being pickier with someone like Banville, but only because he has raised the stakes by his ambitious declarations.

Mainly, though, I'm doing him the honor of taking his words seriously. He says he regards crime writing as crafstmanship? He will know that a craftman needs to work hard and long before attaining mastery. He's still new at this crime thing.

July 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., further reading has convinced me that Banville knows he's playing games with that particular clue-dropping convention -- and delights in showing the reader, over and over again, that he knows this.

July 26, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Wow, I dont remember FOUR posts when you were reviewing my book!

July 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hitch your wagon to Banville's star, and I'll start noticing you, too.

July 26, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

It would be less of a wagon and more a pony cart. A shetland pony. I'm not saying he's short ladies and gentlemen...

No but seriously he's a good bloke. At the event we attended in Arizona he gave me a lift back to our hotel in Scottsdale. While we were driving home some jerk rear ended us. Banville got out of the car and said "I'm not happy." The dude who rear ended us said "Well which one of the dwarves are you then?"

July 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hear he's moving to England, so he can be nasty, British, and short.

July 27, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

What a very good blog this is! I'm sitting here laughing. Very good fun. And I guess I'll have to read Banville's latest. I like it when people make fun of the conventions.

July 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I finished the book last night, and I can't make up my mind what he's doing with those conventions, whether he's making fun of them, whether he uses them because he feels he has to or as a sop to readers but is not really interested in them, whether he just has not yet mastered them.

I will say that I don't think his handling of mystery conventions is the book's strongest feature.

July 27, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, there's a surprisingly large chunk of A Death of Summer available on Black's site, and I've just been wading through all 8000 words of it.

Did you notice all the adverbs he uses?

he said carefully
she said scathingly
Hackett said mildly
she asked icily
Quirke said drily
he said disgustedly
Hackett observed mildly
Hackett stolidly said
she said, almost indignantly
he said easily

And that's just a sample from the opening scenes. I hope Elmore Leonard doesn't read the book. The poor man might drop dead if he encountered a writer making such a naively promiscuous use of the humble adverb.

I dislike Banville for his snobbery and for the many stupid things he has said. But I don't see what his lack of physical stature has to do with anything. Attacking him for being short is not just rude, but juvenile. Surely, you don't want people to think DBB stands for Detectives Beavis and Butt-head.

July 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm occasionally up for a bit of childish fun.

That's a good observation about the adverbs. Even in the book's best scenes, Banville does not exactly keep things moving quickly. The profusion of adverbs may be parly to blame.

July 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could be wrong, but I think Banville makes an admiring reference to Elmore Leonard in an interview.

July 27, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I'm occasionally up for a bit of childish fun

I'm occasionally up for taking the high moral ground. I don't get many opportunities for that so I rather opportunistically seize the ones that come along. I hope you'll forgive me for that.

Banville has great taste in crime fiction. Or at least his taste very closely matches mine. Much the same thing, of course.

But what strikes me is that his own rather windy and wordy 19th century prose is the very antithesis of the sharp, lean prose of the likes of Simenon, Cain and Stark that he professes to like so much.

You think he hasn't attained mastery yet? On what I've read so far, I'm not sure he's even attained mediocrity yet.

July 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I've noticed, too, that Banville professes admiration for excellent crime writers whose style bears little resemblance to his own, Richard Stark especially. He does single our Simenon's romans durs rather than the Maigret novels. Those books contain long stretches devoid of action, as his Benjamin Black writing appears to do.

July 27, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Those books contain long stretches devoid of action, as his Benjamin Black writing appears to do

You've read The Dain Curse, haven't you, Peter? The final third of that book contains almost nothing but action. The characters run around like headless chickens. And it's probably the most boring thing Hammett ever wrote.

Action can be every bit as dull as inaction. Most of the action movies that Hollywood produces go straight to DVD because they're so boring. No matter how much is happening, if you've seen it before, it's just not interesting.

It's not action that matters. It's interest that matters. That's what keeps us reading. Something new, something fresh, somthing different.

I think I've mentioned the Cornell Woolrich story New York Blues here before. It's about thirty pages long, it adheres to the Aristotelian unities of time and place, it's a trifle sentimental as most 'noir' stories are, it has a brief flurry of action at the end, but for most of its thirty pages nothing actually happens, and yet it's gripping from beginning to end.

Why? Because Woolrich knows how to maintain our interest. And he knows that if the reader cares about the character then even a scene with the character flossing his teeth can be made interesting.

July 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Without a doubt. But action is still characteristic of much crime fiction -- not necessarily chases, shootings, and fisticuffs, but something that will keep the story moving.

Black will often have a character engage in contemplation whose relationship to the story is not immediately apparent. William McIlvanney does this in his Laidlaw novels, too. At this stage in Benjamin Black's career, McIlvanney does it better.

July 27, 2011  

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