Saturday, July 23, 2011

Elegy for April

Checking back I discovered I have written about books by John Banville here and here and here and here. I must be more his fan than I ever realized, but am not at all displeased to discover this fact. Elegy for April is written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, a name Banville invented for his recent money-making experiments with genre fiction. These are pastiches of Fifties Noir set in the grimy chilly drab pious corrupt parsimonious city of Dublin. What I like best about this series is the way every element of plot and character and setting is derived from established models. There is no attempt to improve on the received Noir package. Except that Banville makes all these cliches come alive  because he imagines his versions with such vividness and accounts for them in such plain, powerful language.

The floor was of bare boards thickly varnished. With the toe of his shoe the detective kicked aside the cheap woolen rug beside the bed; more bare wood, the varnish a shade paler where the rug had shielded it from the light. He paused a moment, thinking, it seemed, then with a brusqueness that startled Quirke he leaned forward and in one swift movement pulled back the bedding – sheets, blanket, pillow, and all – baring the mattress to its full length. There was something almost indecent in the way he did it, Quirke thought. Again the policeman paused, gazing on his handiwork and fingering his lower lip – the mattress bore the usual human stains  then he lifted back the skirts of his squeaky coat and with an effort, grunting, he knelt down and leaned low and scanned between the floorboards along the paler space by the side of the bed where the rug had been. He straightened, still kneeling, and took from the pocket of his trousers a small, pearl-handled penknife on a long, fine chain and leaned forward again and began to scrape carefully in the gaps between the boards. Quirke leaned too and looked over the policeman's shoulder at the crumbs of clotted, dark dust that he was salvaging. "What is it?" he asked, although he already knew.

"Oh, it's blood," Hackett said, sounding weary, and sat back on his heels and sighed. "Aye, it's blood, all right."

The odd part of all this is that I can't drum up much personal enthusiasm for the classic originals (Chandler, Hammett, Simenon, et al) but am all admiration for Banville's simulacra. Why? Simply because he has a better style. Banville, after all, is Irish. And the Irish, in our own day and age, simply write better English prose than anybody else. (The inherent superiority of Irish contemporary writers is another subject I have belabored in the past, both here and here.)