The man in Black: Banville’s noirish Quirke returns

08/25/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:18 AM

“Holy Orders: A Quirke Novel” by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt, 304 pages, $26)

With John Banville, you get two authors in one. And now there are three.

Under his own name, the Irish writer creates brilliant, luminous and intellectual literary novels like “The Sea,” which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2005. He’s also a playwright, screenwriter, journalist and take-no-prisoners book reviewer.

Banville, 67, has also published six novels as Benjamin Black, a series of darkly atmospheric noir mysteries set in Dublin in the 1950s. Their main character, a pathologist with a troubled past (and present) and the single name Quirke, appears for a seventh time in Black’s gripping, terrific new novel, “Holy Orders.” A BBC series based on the books, “Quirke,” is now in production, with Gabriel Byrne in the title role.

And the third authorial identity? In March, Benjamin Black will publish “The Black-Eyed Blonde.” The novel’s protagonist is Philip Marlowe, one of the most revered progenitors of the tough detective character and the indelible creation of the great Raymond Chandler. Marlowe appeared in seven novels, beginning with “The Big Sleep” in 1939; Black’s novel about him is sanctioned by the Chandler estate. So, that’s Banville as Black channeling Chandler.

Banville answered my questions via e-mail.

“Holy Orders” has a tight, intricate plot. Was that emphasis a deliberate move?

I must confess to you that when I finish a book I am always convinced it is the worst thing I’ve ever written. “Holy Orders” was no exception, but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise. I don’t think I concentrated on plot in this book any more than I have done in the past. I was interested by the “tinkers,” they are called travellers now, but was a little worried that I didn’t know enough about their world. However, recently I met a retired priest — I didn’t know priests retired, did you? — who had worked with travellers, and he told me I had got them just right. Very gratifying, of course. I really don’t plan much ahead. When I start a Quirke book, I have a general outline of the plot in my head, but I trust happenstance to guide me in the details. I hope this gives the books something of the messily contingent nature of real life.

Why did you choose the 1950s for the Quirke novels?

The 1950s, especially in Ireland, is an ideal period in which to set noir fiction. All that bad weather, cigarette smoke, oodles of drink, and dark, dark secrets, deeply hidden. … I was born in 1945, so I had my childhood in the ’50s. It is interesting and amusing to trawl my earliest memories to see what nuggets of gold I can come up with from the period. But mainly it is the secrecy of the time that fascinates me. The essential, characteristic gesture that I remember from that time is an index finger pressed urgently to lips: “Ssh! Say nothing.”

After the Marlowe book, what will your next book be?

I’ve been writing a John Banville book for the past couple of years on and off, obviously, and now I’m going to get down to that in a serious way. Also I’m mulling over my next Quirke book. I suspect it will feature Quirke’s daughter Phoebe in a pivotal role, though I’m not sure how. What larks, eh?

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