Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Back to Black (Benjamin)

I am doing VERY poorly on my Goodreads promise of three books a month - I keep jumping from book to book halfway through and never seem to finish one. Perhaps because I keep buying more of the fuckers, and faster than any human can read.


I was in Folio Books in Brisbane last week (Archives Rare Books secondhand store was earlier in the week, no Oakley Hall in the Westerns section, damn) and, while I was buying the new biography of Stefan Zweig, I saw the latest Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) on the shelf, with a picture of Gabriel Byrne on the cover, dressed up in period costume almost as he was in the movie Miller's Crossing. Obviously they (who? BBC One and RTÉ One) have started placing the shambling Dublin pathologist, Dr Quirke, into a TV series! But I realised when I looked inside the cover that I was several books behind. I thought, hey, I won't buy it now anyway because bought-too-many-books-already/overweight-luggage/double-stacked-shelves/too-small-apartment (Ha, say my friends).

Back in Singers I go to check the last of the dour Quirke sagas I have read, the fourth - A Death in Summer. There it is, correctly sited in Fiction, alphabetical Author, publishing date order... with a bookmark poking forlornly out the top between pages 220 and 221. One third through. I didn't finish it. Oh, well there are a plethora (veritable, literal, actual) of other unfinished dusty* old tomes here, no great surprise there. I was no doubt enchantedly distracted by fresh pastures of augmented literary verdancy then as I still succumb to now.

I decided to restart it on the spot, catch up to the latest in the series and then download, ahem, purchase the TV shows.


Straight away, just a few pages in, I knew why I had not finished it. It was not that I had been distracted by something else. I think instead I had consciously decided not to finish it. I didn't enjoy it, it was too light (despite the grisly death) for what I was expecting from the early books. Too much sunshine, or something (not even sure if it mentions sunshine, but...). I'd given up on it. When the author is named Black, you expect darkness. Perhaps the women are too beautiful, too photogenic, and that is where the sunshine comes from. But Quirke in love with that snooty-French bitch, the gorgeous, newly widowed (Femme Fatale alert) Francoise? You've got to be joking.

Sigh. Well... The plot also seemed (and still seems) terribly formulaic, something of a pastiche, a parody, an Agatha Christie-like passionless, vaguely intriguing mystery to read on the train. It seems to steal something from every other crime mystery ever written. Oh no, it's not suicide after all! The usual suspects; the rival blustery businessman fresh from verbal with the deceased; the surly, estranged daughter; the sensitive ex-con estate manager; the ice-hearted widow due for the inheritance; the businessman's mysterious son just back from (shades of Inspector Hound) Canada... This feeling was so strong, I recall I could almost see Banville/Black surrendering to a How To Write A Crime Mystery Writer's Workshop rigidity. The mindset that forces him to use hoary old tricks to keep us reading on past the chapter breaks. Perhaps they're not so much a cliff on which to hang, as a street gutter outside a pub to stumble over, but I hate that type of overly dramatic pause with a finishing sentence that doesn't finish anything. I might just be me, I despise airport (or train journey) thrillers because of it. It's an hiatus that clangs of ad-breaks for the TV shows (ironically), so that you can rush to the toilet... I fight against it. I prefer closure to the Perils of Pauline while I hold my piss. I much prefer watching cable-TV shows or movies that are edited to be watched all the way through, rather than to the fifteen minute ad-cycle of free-to-air TV I am forced to sit through with the FLOs in Australia. And it is the same with books.

Meanwhile other novels I have dug my head into lately (and not finished either, mostly) include ones by Thomas Bernhard, Jose Saramago, and Låszlo Krasznahorkai, writers who confront you with great slabs of un-paragraphed text for many, many pages, and even in Bernhard's case a whole novel, and when so the break does come, it comes not with a short gasp of suspense, but with a sigh of completeness. That's that part of the story done, OK? Now let me tell you the next bit...

Well yes, this ad-break method is inherent in the style of the genre Black/Banville's chosen to write, that of the unputdownable (take it to the loo with you) thriller, but it makes you wonder why he is just following someone else's sclerotic old rules half-heartedly, only half-seriously when he is such a master. He still writes as well as you'd expect of a Booker winning author (maybe Noble Prize short-listed?) and has sent me to now and then ("louring turrets" - louring: lowering, looming, threatening, as in dark storm clouds louring. As in turrets. A very Thomas Hardy word, don't you think?), and I think back on the masterly works of Banville as Banville, how Kepler captivated me, etc...

The title of the book itself:A Death In Summer**, it reeks of a TV show, doesn't it? Mid-summer. Murder. Sort of thing. From the start you know there's only going to be one corpse. There's a bit of mystery already gone. And it is not to be confused with the more Hemingwayesque title of William Trevor's Death In Summer. Death as a concept, as an abstraction, as a slaughterhouse. (Is Midsomer Murders about a serial killer?)

B/B's going to have to do something special to get this penny dreadful plot to rise above a Dame Agatha level of two-dimensionality. The sad fact is those cliffhanger devices work best when the story is thrilling already, but the intrigue of whether Sinclair will bang Quirke's daughter or not hardly moves me to insomnia. (Of course he will. Or maybe not.)

Having said all that, we know and love the man with more troubles than all the other crime mystery heroes combined, the multi-troubled, diffident but determined, the grown man still tormented by memories of a childhood in those horrific Irish orphanages, the poorly-reformed alcoholic, chain-smoking, overly curious Dr Quirke, surely enough.


- Is it himself in this one?
- Aye, it surely is.
- And is he worth the flamin' effort? Just for himself, the man, at all?
- Aye, to be sure.


Ah well, I keep pushing on... There's sure bound to be more about child-abusing priests, and the stories of other victims of the horror orphanages who had made it out even more negatively affected than did Dr Quirke. And Sinclair will bonk Phoebe. Or if not, definitely in the next book - I can wait to find out.

I'm sure blacker things will lour up suitably turret-like and ominous once I push past last time's point of abandonment. Then I can get on with rest of them.


* NTS: must berate the FDW for insufficient "attention to detail". (The catch-phrase of my old Chief Radiographer, who'd sweep every horizontal surface of your monthly allocated x-ray room for any particles of germ carrying dust: "Attention to detail, Mr E@L, is the hallmark of the good radiographer." As it is for almost every occupation, E@L kept muttering under his breath.)

** I wrote this before I read the much, much better informed and more forgiving Guardian review - I see cliché, he sees homage and due respect. The reviewer seems at least to have finished it before putting fingertips to keyboard.


Stephen Folan said...

I've read a lot of the Benjamin Black. He's a bit too literary and 50s/60s which is why it feels dated. Try Ken Bruen's detective Jack Taylor which tells the story of modern Galway as well as the life of an ex-policeman and informal private eye. Some of the books are very surreal.

expat@large said...

Hey H-G, long time!

I don't know if Black feels dated exactly. The issues of Irish orphans and the like are moderately contemporary, but yes, it's reads like period homage.

I'll have a look at Bruen. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

And the Stefan Zweig ?
Recommended crime: Adrian McKinty, Fifty Grand.

Free Podcast

Related Posts with Thumbnails