27-29. Three by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

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27-29. Three by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

Post  Patguy on Sat Dec 19, 2009 12:59 am

Christine Falls
The Silver Swan
The Lemur

These are three noir novels by the literary novelist John Banville, the first two of which both feature as our hero 1950s Dublin pathologist Quirke. Of the three, I enjoyed Christine Falls the most, especially when viewed as a literary novel partly concerned with crime and not a genre novel per se. It also wins points for me by allowing a cameo by a thinly-disguised Brendan Behan character: “Barney Boyle stood there, flagrant, drunk, and menacingly jovial.”

I haven’t read any of Banville’s other work, so I’m no expert, but I could clearly sense the tension between the “literariness” of these books and their detective novel trappings. The characters and the prose are all acute—really very fine, especially everything about Quirke and his complicated family life. But the mystery elements seem a little underdeveloped, with a vagueness at the heart of things that seems more appropriate to a psychological novel than a detective story. In part that’s certainly deliberate: The Silver Swan spends as much time flashbacking through the life of the central victim as it does on the uncovering of the crime, and in fact, given how well-explicated everything is, can hardly be called a “mystery” at all. Plus, equal time is given to Quirke and the other characters left over from Christine Falls, which makes sense considering the life-altering developments of that book, but which John D. MacDonald or Ed McBain would never had allowed.

The Lemur is a strange short book, set in contemporary New York among the beautiful people. It’s considerably more stripped-down than the other two, and I think most successfully meets Banville’s stated goal of sounding like Georges Simenon. It’s also unapologetically postmodern, leading the reader through a series of familiar genre complications, and then ending, John-Fowlesishly, right before any sort of narrative resolution.

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