Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Irish openings

Last week I promised a return to some current crime fiction by authors from a country that plays a role in the Icelandic and Old Norse sagas, and here it is.  (That country is Ireland, and the authors are Benjamin Black, known as John Banville when not writing crime novels, and Declan Burke.)

A Death in Summer, Black's fourth novel about the pathologist Quirke, opens thus, on the death of a newspaper tycoon:
 "When word got about that Richard Jewell had been found with the greater part of his head blown off and clutching a shotgun in his bloodless hands, few outside the family circle and few inside it, either, considered his demise a cause for sorrow."
A newspaper tycoon who was a bad guy. Who'd have thought such a thing possible in this day and age? The opening pages offer detached, amused observation, a poke at the intrusive excesses of tabloid journalism (No!), and a secretary who has a better grasp of English than an editor-in-chief. That's not a bad start.

Burke's Absolute Zero Cool is more recently arrived than the Black, and I've read even less of it. But this blog is a sucker for good opening lines, and Burke's is not at all bad: "The man at the foot of my bed is too sharply dressed to be anything but a lawyer or a pimp."

More to come on both.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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24 Comments:

Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Richard Jewell? Richard Jewell? That's an unfortunate choice of names!

Why? Richard Jewell was the security guard at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta who was first acclaimed as a hero and then became a suspect in the bombing of the park during the '96 Olympics.

Eric Rudolph, an anti-abortion zealot, later confessed to the crime, exonerating Jewell.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember Richard Jewell, and also the Eric Rudolph hiding out got quite some time. I have yet to get far enough into the novel to see if the name has historical significance.

July 21, 2011  
Anonymous Arlene said...

Oh Declan's book had me tittering and snuffling like a loon. Cracking read and filled with blade thin lines like the opener.
Banville's I liked (amazing language as always) but found it too slow and the Quirke romances too improbable, especially over a 2 week (!) time period. However the BBC are developing it, and I think it would make an excellent Sunday night– ala Morse –show. Be interesting to see who they cast as Quirke.

Arlene

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just found out this evening that Quirke was being adapted for television. This is my first Quirke book, though nsturally I know about the uproar and the sniping and Banville's provocative statements about crime writing. (I also remember that he appeared as Benjamin Black at the Sunday Independent Book Festival in 2008 -- but in the main segment, in Dublin, and not with the rest of you in Dun Laoghaire. That struck me as a possibly inflammatory gesture on his part.)

I've read twenty or thirty pages more of Declan's book since I made the post. It's surprisingly, I don't know, human and down to earth for a book that plays that game of author meets character.

July 21, 2011  
Anonymous Arlene said...

He strikes me(Banville) as impish in his regular utterances. I think he rather likes the feathers he ruffles to stay fluffed up.

July 21, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I have yet to get hold of a free Declan Burke (I try new ones at the library first--too many disappointments). Black I've read, both the mysteries and several of the literary novels. Arlene is right about both. Gorgeous language. I've said elsewhere that I don't see much difference between the two kinds of his novels. Both have pacing and plot problems for me. Both are beautifully written, especially the descriptions, something that most mystery writers avoid like the plague.
But I really liked your post!

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

I'm jealous, Peter. My copy of AZC appears to be on a very slow boat across the pond.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Arlene, I got that feeling, too, after a while. I was foolishly resentful when Banville started spouting off about crime fiction, but the guy has kept writing crime, and Declan put him in Down These Green Streets, and that should be good enough for me.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, thanks, I.J. Even as I enjoy the leisurely descriptions of the opening chapters, I wonder if the pace will pick up later.

Have you read William McIlvanney's Laidlaw novels? McIlvanney is another "literary" writer who turned his hand to crime, with three books about a Glasgow police inspector. They're fine books whose pacing, with the narrator stopping to deliver short or not so short observations unrelated to the investigation at hand, took me a bit of getting used to. Perhaps pace is the salient characteristic of crime writing.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Ingpark said...

I've taken note of McIlvanney. Yes, I do feel we cannot indulge ourselves in a crime novel the same way we can in a literary one, or even in, say, historical adventure or sci fi. But I'm not sure that a beautifully written sentence describing a setting or a character (and Black is superb at describing people) really slows down the pace. It's other things, maybe even dialog. Dialog can really pause the action.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, it will likely elicit appreciative chuckles when it does arrive.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ingrid (if I may call you that, given your new sign-in label), I'll pay attention to pacing as I read Black, with special attention to why a given passage seems to slow the pace. I won't get to do this too frequently, I hope.

July 21, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I have a new sign-in label? I'm flattered. Oh, and yes, I answer to Ingrid. :)

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your comments always appeared under the heading "I.J.Parker said..." until the one before your latest, which appeared under "Ingpark said..." All names welcomed here.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I was at an event where Banville said that he writes his Benjamin Black novels in about 4 weeks, Simenon fashion. He and this is a direct quote "just dashes them off because ultimately they are disposable works, of what I advisedly do not call literature".

I'm not surprised there's a character called Richard Jewell. A one minute Wikipedia search would have shown Banville that this wasn't a good name but in that valuable one minute he could have written a couple of pages so was it time well spent? Probably not.

Onto to happier topics: I'm a big fan of Declan Burke and I think Absolute Zero Cool is one of the most daring, original and brilliant crime novels I have read in a very long time.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Peter - Much obliged for the mention, sir, and delighted it's treating you well so far. Arlene & Adrian - your reward will be in heaven. Sorry about that ...

Cheers, Dec

July 22, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ah, that comment by Banville has made him lots of enemies among mystery writers. What was he thinking of? When you have written crime novels and offered them for sale, then you keep such thoughts to yourself.
On the other hand, I have a long history of talking around my foot.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, Banville has been quoted several times to that effect, usually with respect to the number of words he writes per day as Black vs. his scantier output as Banville. I think he should slow down and take five weeks to write his next crime novel.

Maybe the choice of Richard Jewell was deliberate, especially if the dead Richard Jewell in his book turns out not to have been as bad as he is seen to be at first.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, it's treating me exceedingly well so far. Among other things, I admire the non-gimmicky use of the author-meets-character trope. You're a natural heir to Pirandello and Woody Allen.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I don't know enough about Banville to be able to guess why he said those things. At first I thought he may have been expressing a simple truth about his writing practice: that the words flow easily when he writes one kind of book. Then I thought he might simply be engaging in self-lacerating criticism.

On the other hand, he seems content to be known as a crime writer. I hate to throw up my hands and write this off to some perversity of his character. I think I'll probe Declan Burke's interview of him in Down These Green Streets for clues.

July 22, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I don't know enough about Banville to be able to guess why he said those things

Peter, if you're really curious, you might find the interview with Banville in the Paris Review enlightening.

Some quotes from that article:

he says he is committed to language and to rhythm above plot, characterization, or pacing

I don't mind writers committing themselves to language and rhythm, but most of them who do so consider themselves not different to other writers, but superior to them. Since we live in a meaningless and absurd universe, language and rhythm are every bit as absurd as plot and characterization, and yet dimwits like Banville who concentrate on language and rhythm consider themselves as rising above such absurdity.

Yes! I hate them [his own novels]. I mean that. Nobody believes me, but it’s true. They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame. They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.

They're better than everybody else's, of course. Now that statement is what should embarrasse Banville. Of course, no man ever expired from patting himself on the back, Banville takes such tremendous pleasure from blowing his own trumpet that one is inclined to think of him simply as a frustrated musician.

I don’t see human beings as essential to the universe. Human beings in my work are figures in a landscape, and the landscape is just as important as the figures.

Human beings are not essential to the universe. And neither are books. You don't write books for the universe. You write them for other human beings and if they don't appeal to those people, then they fail. Banville doesn't seem to realise that.

One of my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms is—and I always trot this out when people ask me about some other writer who’s having a huge success for some cheap thing—“You will never get the crowd to cry hosanna until you ride into town on an ass.”

Ah, Nietzsche, the patron saint of snobs. You read that and you realise poor John is just a small-town boy from Wexford who grew up with a severe, and probably incurable, case of snobbery. Curiously, less than thirty miles away in Waterford, a certain Raymond Chandler, who spent a portion of his childhood there, acquired an equally virulent strain of snobbery. Religious, rather than literary, in his case. Must be something in the water down there.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I keep hoping that Banville is nothing but the world's most mischievous put-on artist. If he pretends to be embarrassed by his own novels -- his non-Benjamin Black novels, I mean -- I wouldn't mind seeing him dissect one of them critically.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I've got another philosopher for you. I've met Banville and after our exteremely unpleasant encounter the aphorism that came to my mind was the Hobbesian description of life in the state of nature: "solitary, poor, nastish, brutish and short." All except the poor bit fitted Banville to a T.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've always wanted to say about a diminutive, ill-tempered Englishman that he was nasty, British and short. Does Banville have any English blood in him?

July 23, 2011  

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