Sunday, February 11, 2007

John Banville, crime writer

The teaser line below the title in John Banville's essay in the (U.K.) Telegraph's Seven Magazine reads, "I blame Agatha for turning me to crime, says John Banville." That's not entirely accurate, if I read him correctly.

Banville's debut crime novel, written as Benjamin Black, is Christine Falls.

In the magazine article he gives Agatha Christie her due, as well as "Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh - whose very name was a conundrum - Josephine Tey, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L. Sayers."

Then he invokes Chandler:

I now consider the Marlowe books forced and sentimental, for all their elegance and wit and their wonderful surface sheen, yet I suspect it was Chandler who first intimated to me the possibility that a crime novel could approach the condition of art.

Chandler perhaps laboured too long and too hard at effecting the transmutation of life's raw material into deathless prose. A far greater writer, James M. Cain, who was happy to keep it raw, who gloried, indeed, in the rebarbative, created a masterpiece, seemingly effortlessly, in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Chandler would be very unhappy to come out on the short end of a comparison with Cain.

Banville honors Richard Stark, especially the Parker novels, then moves on to praise Georges Simenon. Actually, not all of Simenon:
His Maigret books, which I have tried to read, without much success, seem formulaic and even at times slapdash, betraying the fact that they were written at awesomely high speeds.

But the hard novels, such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Tropic Moon and the masterly The Strangers in the House, are another matter altogether. I can do no better than to quote myself, from the jacket of The Man Who Watched Trains Go By:

'The romans durs are extraordinary: tough, bleak, offhandedly violent, suffused with guilt and bitterness, redolent of place (Simenon is unsurpassed as a scene setter), utterly unsentimental, frightening in the pitilessness of their gaze, yet wonderfully entertaining.'

I had not realised that one could achieve such range and depth by such seemingly meagre means. And it was out of that realisation that Christine Falls was born.

This was my attempt to write in the Simenonian direct style, with no fancy flourishes and a modest vocabulary. But where did I come by the nerve to venture into an area of fiction where so many masters already rule? Was it hubris or folly or both?

And is it art? That is not for me to say. But if it is art, then it is so by accident. And anyway, what does it matter, art or otherwise? For oh, dear, what fun I am having.

Read Banville's essay.

Christine Falls
releases in March 2007.

--Marshal Zeringue