Benjamin Black, the pseudonym of John Banville, whose novel The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, has written a mystery thriller, Christine Falls, the first in a projected series about Dublin pathologist Garret Quirke.
Dublin is a city that has been "claimed" by James Joyce in a pretty daunting way. Is it tough to create your own Dublin in his wake?
Yes, Joyce the Dubliner looms at our shoulders like an Easter Island statue. Sometimes one feels he has used up the city. However, in Ulysses, he wrote only about the lower-middle or upper-working class, not the middle class. This is a stratum Joyce largely ignored, and so it is possible to say something new.
Why did you choose to write a mystery? Does mystery deserve to be considered as literature?
I dislike the separation of fiction into genres: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Richard Stark and many other "crime" writers are just good novelists. The greatest literary discovery I have made in recent time is Georges Simenon—his "hard" novels, such as Dirty Snow and TheStrangers intheHouse. So impressed was I by these books that I was determined to write one. The result is Christine Falls.
Why did you set Christine Falls during the 1950s?
The 1950s fascinate me, especially the Irish 1950s. In those times, we in Ireland were just as trammeled politically, spiritually and emotionally as the peoples of Eastern Europe under Soviet rule, the difference being that we didn't know it. It was a low, mendacious, frightened and frightening decade, as bad in its way as the 1930s.
How did Quirke "germinate" in your mind?
Quirke is a natural outgrowth from the series of first-person narrators who have dominated my John Banville novels since the early 1980s. Like them, he is a man in trouble, morally ambiguous about nursing his own demons and secrets. From the start, I saw him as an enormous man—well over six feet tall, barrel-chested, with huge shoulders and a great Roman emperor head. Readers of Christine Falls expect me to look like Quirke: I must be a puzzle and a disappointment to them.
Why did you set part of the book in America?
I wanted to make a contrast between Ireland and America and the Irish and Americans, especially of the rich, East Coast variety of Americans, in the Cold War 1950s. A friend told me about Scituate, on the coast south of Boston, and when I went to see the place I was hooked at once. I've visited America regularly since my early 20s.