Sunday, August 14, 2011

The new (Benjamin) Black in my newspaper

My review of A Death in Summer, by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, appears in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer:
"John Banville distinguishes between the artistic pleasure he derives from the literary novels he writes under his own name and the craftsman’s pleasure he gets from the crime fiction he writes as Benjamin Black. This makes it fair to ask a craftsman’s questions of the Black books: How well do the parts fit together? How smoothly does Black execute them? Are they beautiful? Do they work? Does the finished product perform the functions essential to an object of its kind?"
Read the complete review for all the answers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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33 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, I didn't know you owned the Philadelphia Enquirer, or do you call it "my newspaper" because you're the only one still working there. ;o)
I haven't read this one by Banville but I found the one Benjamin Black that I have read a bit too slow and ponderous for my taste.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You don't know how close you are to being right. Two more colleagues are leaving next week, and their replacements are both named Air, first name Thin. And our building has just been sold.

Granted that there was lots of vacant space in the building, so the move made economic sense. Still, that makes all the easier for the owners to bail, should they decide to do so.

I don't know what to make of Banville and crime fiction. Maybe "Benjamin Black" really is still young and finding his way.

August 14, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Nice review, Peter.

I'm not sure about Black being some neophyte, though.

A Death In Summer is his fifth crime novel. Heck, Hammett only wrote five altogether, Chandler only managed seven.

It's a damn long apprenticeship.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

NIce review, I haven't read the author in either of his two incarnations, but I book marked this page for this reason. The way you analyized the book is a lesson in breaking a book down to it's component parts. I think I'll use this as an outline from time to time.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, solo. He's been writing novels for 30 or 35 years, and crime novels for just a few. That makes him a bit of a newcomer -- especially since he tosses off crime novels so fast.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, thanks, Robert. Banville talks so much about himself and his work, and what flaws there are in the book are so easliy connected with the issues he raises that he practically supplies the questions (craftsmanship, his relarive newness to crime. etc.).

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Also, solo, since this was the first of his crime novels that I've read, I was not yet in a position to pass judgment on Black's oeuvre/

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

To me, when it comes to crime fiction, or genre fiction in general, craftsmanship are pretty important. True, all rules are meant to be broken, but if you are going to break them you have to break them in an orderly fashion or with a purpose in mind. In Chandlers day, and indeed during the 20's and 30's it was a golden rule that the detective never be married, and it was an unwrittenrule that even romantic interests Rule no. 3 of SS Van Dine, yet Hammett gave us Nick and Nora, etc...Rule number 6 was there mus be a detective (or someone acting as a detective) Yet noir was born by having no detective, but the protagonist himself solving the crime or even being the victim.

For me, someone who has had to learn to write a review, I like to see the component parts, the way you laid them out here. I've had to develope an eye for the craftsmanship tht goes into the story. You make that easier.

August 14, 2011  
Anonymous Liz V. said...

Both Banville/Black new to me--a sentence I seem to write to you often. Thanks.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, I more often state the proposition as one has to know the rules before one breaks them, and I think of it more often in my job than in my reading. I'll share some thoughts on that one day.

But yes, in crime fiction, the conventions are always present even by their absence. I'm stunned that Black would resort to the stale conventions he resorts to here after having vowed to avoid cliches. One example that I quoted suggests strongly that he knew what he was doing with one of the convention and thought it funny. It isn't.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome, Liz. This novel got me curious about John Banville's "literary" novels. I'd like to see whether he creates human landscapes of the kind I thought were this book's strongest feature.

August 14, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

THE SEA is pretty good. Gorgeous beginning.

Peter, I liked that review very much. As for Banville/Black, he's always interesting to read about. He may be more interesting that way that to actually to read. (Hmm, that wasn't very nice).

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: Thanks for the recommendation and the compliment. I, too, found Banville interesting to read about. Some of his opinions of crime fiction are surprising, and his taste is exceedingly good. I have yet to be convinced that he can write the stuff himself, though.

He loves Simenon's romans durs, for example, and Richard Stark's Parker novels. These books are strong on atmosphere (though the Parker books also often include a huge robbery as a plot device.) With this in mind, it was no shock to me that A Deat in Summer is strongest on atmosphere.

What I could not figure out is why Black resorts to crime-fiction plot conventions with which he is clearly uncomfortable. Is he feeling his way through them? Making fun of them?

August 14, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

especially since he tosses off crime novels so fast

You've been suckered by his blurb, Peter. He's published five crime novels in six years (2006-2011). With your knowledge of crime writing, you could name me a dozen crime writers in the last century who have twice or triple that rate of production.

I've just been reading La Guingette à deux sous (The Bar on the Seine) by Simenon, one of eleven Maigrets he 'tossed off' in 1931. Now there's a writer who has the facility that Banville can only dream of.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I'm just trying to use Banville's own words to hang him. His claims about how quickly he dashes off his crime novels have infuriated crime fans, probably deliberately, Well, Mr. Black, you say you dash off crime novels at a pace you could never manage in your "literary" novels. Perhaps you could tell the court if that explains ...

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, Banville says he doesn't like the Maigret novels. Perhaps he is simply not given by temperament or inclination to writing quickly and, when he tries to do so, is simply uncomfortable.

August 14, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

No, I'm just trying to use Banville's own words to hang him. His claims about how quickly he dashes off his crime novels have infuriated crime fans, probably deliberately, Well, Mr. Black, you say you dash off crime novels at a pace you could never manage in your "literary" novels. Perhaps you could tell the court if that explains ...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Black

Judge: Mr Banville, you have been accused of using an alias with the sole intention of extorting money from an unsuspecting public. How do you plead?

Black: I'm from Wexford, your honour.

Judge: Your humble origins are of no interest to this court. You have further been accused of exposing your artistic credentials in a way likely to cause a disturbance of the peace. Is this true?

Black: Who? Me? I'm only five foot four, your honour.

Judge: Mr Banville, do you have anyone to call as a witness to your good character?

Black: Yes, your honour. Peter Rozovsky.

Judge: Is this Rozovsky a fit and proper person to appear before this court?

Black: Yes, your honour. He's a Canadian.

Judge: A Canadian, eh? Then by all means let Mr Rozovsky appear. Mr Rozovsky, can you attest to the good character of the person you see in the dock.

Rozovsky: No, your honor. I've never seen that man before in my life.

Judge: Thank you, Mr Rozovsky. The court has no option but to find the defendent guilty on all charges: fraud, insincerity, obnoxiousness, and contrary to the laws of this state, entirely lacking a sense of humour. Therefore, according to the powers vested in me I sentence the accused, William John Banville (known as the dwarf), to hang by the neck until death. May God have mercy on your soul. Proceed.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Banville is just a contrarian. I don't know that it has much to do with his writing, though. It does seem to be one way to make a mark.

By sheerest chance, I'm reading a Simenon roman dur. At least that's what it says on the cover. I'm reading it because it was recommended to me. It happens to be set in America on Labor Day, and Simenon's work seems so French (although I know he's Belgian) that I had to see what he would do with the idea. In translation, it's called Red Lights. I'm enjoying it and the recommender is right in saying that he got America about right. He wrote it in the mid fifties, and there is a very Mad Men feel to it, though it would probably be fairer to say this the other way around.

August 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, that I know the last letter of the alphabet is zed (and not zee) is testament enough to my character.

I wonder if my learned friend is being a trifle hard on Mr. Black. To the charge of obnoxiousness, nolo contendere. (You were most tactful not to mention the tough-guy photo of him in the fedora that you will find with my review.)

On the other charges, if I can't ask for a verdict of not guilty, I can at least seek a lesser sentence. I know that lacking a sense of humor is the most serious offense one can commit in Ireland, and humor is not to be found in A Death in Summer. But I do think Banville shows traces of humor and flashes of sincerity when he talks about crime fiction.

By the way, did I ever mention that I once saw a barrister or judge carrying his own wig and robe to his car outside the main courthouse in Belfast? I quite enjoyed that homely glimpse behind the imposing facade of the law.

August 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, there may be something to what you say. Banville is a bit of a shit disturber when it comes to crime writing.

I probably warmed toward Banville a bit when Declan Burke did. Like many crime fiction fans, I worked myself into a froth when Banville made his provocative comments about crime writing. Of course, I had not read Benjamin Black at the time. But when Burke, who is a gent, seemed to find Banville tolerable, I thought matters might be worth looking into.

Black's taste in crime fiction argue in his favor. And I suspect that his professed desire to avoid cliches in crime writing endeared him to Burke. But I do have to say than when it comes to unconventional, original crime writing, Burke's Absolute Zero Cool is miles ahead of Black.

August 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, there may be something to the Mad Men-Simenon connection. I've never seen Mad Men, but I do know that Simenon spent a fair amount of time in the U.S. -- something to do with unsavory political connections or sympathies during World War II, I think.

August 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, I think Simenon was here in the right era to catch something of the same flavor that Mad Men is trying to recapture in a somewhat arch way now.

August 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That would speak well for Simenon's eye and ear.

August 15, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Very funny, Solo! I enjoyed that.

Ultimately, any posturing by Banville aside, and ignoring the collected outrage of the crime fiction faction, it's Black's novels that have to pove their worth.

Speaking for myself, I have sampled two and am in no great hurry to try again. This is not a critical evaluation, but rather an acknowledgment that he's not quite my cup of tea.

August 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think I've managed to put the posturing aside, as well. I'm in a greater hurry to try one of his Banville novels than another one of his crime novels.

I do confess to mild curiosity about why Black's Christine Falls was shortlisted for an Edgar Award in 2008. Was it really one of the five best crime novels published in the United States the preceding year?

August 15, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Snort. The Edgar choices are highly mystifying most years. In this case, one can guess at the reason.

August 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sure. The easy guess is that nominating Black was a bid for literary respectability. That would not necessarily mean the book isn't good, though. But I haven't read the book, and I'm unfamiliar with nominating procedures for the Edgars, so I'm in no position to debate the issue.

August 15, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Judges volunteer. They tend to be members of MWA. Usually, 3 judges read all of the submissions in a category, discuss their choices and number them 1 through 4 or 5 (I believe). Much depends on the judges in any particular year and category. Politics can get involved. Still, everything considered, I don't think a bad book would make the cut. There are too many other options.

August 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, I.J. I can imagine a judge impatient with the state of crime writing casting a vote for Benjamin Black to goose the industry into accepting non-traditional (for the genre) authors and approaches.

August 16, 2011  
Anonymous Francois said...

Banville/Black is a lead-footed and inept writer and a stain on the Booker Prize. Heaven knows how he was ever published and how someone with no visible traces of talent has come to have a career in writing.

August 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

An assessment like that might draw a reader or two curious to see how such leaden ineptitude could be rewarded with a major prize.

August 17, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

A review of the first episode of
http://www.clickonline.com/tv/review-quirke-episode-one/23136/

The tv reviewers on the local 'Newstalk' radio were less kind. They were even questioning why the 'hero' should be addressed as 'Quirke' by literally everybody; including his own family(!!!!).

I intended to watch it even though I knew the plot - such as it was - but the mood music, and the excessive brooding, and the over-emphasis on 'atmosphere' was a massive turn-off.
Even more cringe-inducing than the novel.

February 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The "Quirke" quirk might be mere hard-boiled window-dressing. Atmosphere is a wonderful thing. I think, though, that people who don't read much hard-boiled crime fiction think atmosphere is everything. Certainly some high-brow critics here in the U.S. do.

February 24, 2014  

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