Q&A with Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black is the pen name of John Banville, who is the author of fifteen novels and the recipient of awards including the Man Booker Prize.
1. Why did you choose to write about 1950s Ireland? What freedoms does setting your crime novel in the past give you as a writer?
The Dublin of the 1950s is the perfect setting for a noir novel. All that deprivation, alcohol, cigarette smoke; all those secret crimes and misdemeanours; all that guilt: what more could a mystery writer ask for? Of course, it was a challenge to try to recreate what is, after all, a vanished world, but it was a joy, as well, to trawl through my memories of those far-off days and see what I would come up with—a great deal, as it turned out, somewhat to my surprise.
2. Quirke is a pathologist with a penchant for playing detective. Why did you give him this particular day job?
I didn’t want to have a detective as my protagonist. Also, I liked the idea of a man who works ‘down among the dead men’, a sort of lost soul striving to rise up into the light but always failing. Although his new lady-love, the redoubtable Dr Evelyn Blake, may succeed in rescuing him from the underworld.
3. In your crime fiction you explore the corruption of the state, specifically the notorious mother and baby homes and Irish babies being sent to America for adoption. Why did you choose to delve into this dark side of politics?
Well, it’s just material. I should like to be able to say that I had a crusading social purpose when I set out in the first book, Christine Falls, but the truth is I just wanted to write a novel, and the scandals that had just begun to be revealed at that time seemed ideal for my purpose, as they have continued to be.
4. Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, is a fiercely independent character who becomes her father’s sidekick in solving the crime. Quirke seems at once in admiration of her independence and wary of it. Why did you make this such an uneasy father/daughter relationship? And what do you think it adds to your crime novel?
I’m fascinated by Phoebe—sometimes I think she is the most interesting character in these books. My agent suggests I’m in love with her, but I think that she is me, in some way that I can’t explain. I admire her spirit and her integrity, and I find the relation between father and daughter and daughter and father very interesting and stimulating. I also wanted to portray that rarest of things, an independent-minded young woman in 1950s Ireland.
5. Who are the crime writers you particularly admire?
Georges Simenon above all; Raymond Chandler; James M. Cain; the great Richard Stark; Patricia Highsmith. I don’t any longer read the women writers of earlier years, such as Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, but I really should return to them, as I suspect I would find neglected treasures there.
Well, I can’t speak for others. For myself, I decided to use a pen-name simply to let my Banville readers understand that this was not a postmodernist literary trick I was playing, and that the Quirke novels are what they say they are: crime fiction.
7. Your Quirke novels have been adapted by the BBC for TV. What was your experience like of seeing your characters come quite literally to life?
I love cinema and television drama—when it’s good—so of course I was fascinated to see my characters literally fleshed out by real people. There’s a peculiar magic in hearing actors give an entirely new emphasis and interpretation to my lines. Yes, it’s magical.