The Dublin office of John Banville—novelist, screenwriter, critic—is where he writes the literary fiction he’s famed for, Booker Prize–winning The Sea (Knopf, 2005) and The Infinities (Knopf, 2010), and more recently, under the pen name of Benjamin Black, the Dr. Quirk mysteries, which are becoming as popular in America as they are in Banville’s native Ireland.
Banville, whose fifth Quirk novel, Vengeance, will be published by Henry Holt, even has a separate desk in his office where he creates the Black mysteries on a computer; the other desk is reserved for writing as Banville with pen and paper. He can easily swivel around on his office chair between the two. “Black needs speed, and Banville is something slower,” he says. His office is actually an apartment in the center of Dublin within a rectangular apartment block that looks out over a central green space where children play. “It’s nice to hear their voices drift up here,” Banville says, standing at one of the windows that haven’t been cleaned in a decade and which are “nearly impossible to see through.”
Not one to read many contemporary mystery writers, Banville takes great pleasure in the American classics like Dashiell Hammett and Patricia Highsmith (“She’s so bleak, and of course so truthful,” he says). One could say the same of Dr. Quirk, the star of the Black mysteries, set in 1950s Dublin. A melancholy pathologist, Quirk is more at ease with the dead than the living. He has conflicted relationships with women, including his daughter, Phoebe, and he becomes unwittingly involved in solving crimes in each book. A disconsolate, brooding man, the adopted son of a judge with close ties to Dublin’s high Catholic society, he also drinks too much whiskey and is hapless around beautiful women. In the first Black book, Christine Falls (Holt, 2006), Quirk strikes up an unlikely friendship with Detective Inspector Hackett, and the two become the Laurel and Hardy of Irish policing. “If you want the opposite of Holmes and Watson, it would be Quirk and Hackett. They’re hopeless,” says Banville, laughing.
Banville invented Benjamin Black in 2006. “When I write as Banville I almost always write in the first person, but as Black I write very much outside the character. Paradoxically, that’s the way to get inside the characters’ heads,” he says. “Most of the time I don’t know what Black is doing. I make it up as I go along. And poor old Quirk, I sort of feel sorry for him. I started the new book [the sixth Quirk] a few days ago, and now I find out that he doesn’t like the rain—he doesn’t like to get wet. All the women Quirk has ever known laugh at him because of this. He hates the smell of wet sheep from his coat. I wrote this line yesterday: ‘As long as Quirk could remember, it seemed to be raining on his life.’ ”
Here Banville parts ways with Quirk. On the day of this interview the weather in Dublin is wet and dreary. “It’s a nice, beautiful day, don’t you think?” he asks. “Cold and rainy. I don’t like summer.” Where Dr. Quirk is tall, handsome, and irresistible to women, Banville told Robert Birnbaum at themorningnews.or, “I’m short, old, and not handsome. I made Quirk the opposite of me.”
Banville chose 1950s Dublin as the setting for the Quirk books because that decade fascinates him still. Born in Wexford in 1945, Banville visited his aunt in Dublin every year for his birthday. Catholicism is a central theme in the Quirk books. As Banville recalls, the Church completely ruled the country at that time. “It was so important then—it was our communism,” he says. “Catholicism’s worst crime was to keep us in a state of infantilism. They wouldn’t let us grow up. And now we’re having to grow up, and very fast, and we’re broke. As the cliché goes, the climate in Ireland today is kind of desperate, but not serious.”
In each of the Black books, Quirk stumbles into trouble largely because of his drinking, yet Banville doesn’t consider him an alcoholic. “Alcohol is very important to us,” he muses, “not always as an escape but sometimes as a route into ourselves, a way to communicate. I understand that. You enter a room filled with Irish people. Someone will open a bottle, and within 15 minutes people are singing, shouting, banging the table, and arguing. Suddenly they’ve come alive.”