“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Untouchable’s New Clothes

“Speaking of which – what the fuck is going on with all the award nominations for Benny Blanco? You can’t help feeling it’s just for who he is, and almost a thank you for his condescending to join the crime pack, rather than a reflection of the content of his books. John Connolly must be pissed – and rightly so.”
The author of the above conundrum will have to remain anonymous, unless he or she decides otherwise, on the basis that we’re using it without permission, albeit it as a fairly accurate summation of the off-the-record comments that have arrived at the Grand Vizier’s desk over the last few weeks. Benny Blanco, as all three regular visitors to CAP Towers will be aware, is the pseudonym we use for the pseudonymous Benjamin Black, the crime fiction avatar of John Banville, who may well have changed his name by deed poll to ‘Booker Prize-winning author John Banville’ if the number of times the phrase is used in relation to his Benjamin Black novels is any reliable guide.
  The vast majority of said reviews are very positive indeed, both for Black’s debut CHRISTINE FALLS and its sequel, THE SILVER SWAN (Black’s third novel, THE LEMUR, is currently being serialised in the New York Times). In fact, the Review Monitoring Elf can’t remember seeing a single negative review of either novel. Sample quotes arriving in today (Sunday) alone range from: “I am at this moment reading THE SILVER SWAN by Benjamin Black, and it’s so good, so shiveringly delicious, I want to lick each page in appreciation” (Agatha Christ-Almighty) to: “Pour yourself a quiet drink and settle into your best chair for an authentic dose of Irish angst and wit, wondrous writing and about as undiluted an evening’s pleasure as reading can provide … Last year, Banville / Black stunned many of his long-time fans with an utterly masterful mystery novel, CHRISTINE FALLS, which is up for both an Edgar Award and a Los Angeles Times book prize” (Tim Rutten, LA Times).
  The Grand Vizier would have it be known that he is not in agreement with the thrust of these sentiments. But firstly, a disclaimer: the pseudonymous Grand Vizier is the power-hungry avatar of crime fiction author Declan Burke, who has not won a Booker Prize, and is highly unlikely ever to do so, and that’s even though we live in an infinite universe where everything is at least theoretically possible. A further disclaimer: the Grand Vizier believes John Banville’s THE UNTOUCHABLE to be one of the best novels of the last two decades, and that Banville is a superb writer and one of the best prose stylists working in the English language today. A third disclaimer: the Grand Vizier has yet to read THE SILVER SWAN, and is therefore only qualified to speak about CHRISTINE FALLS.
  So: CHRISTINE FALLS. Here at CAP Towers, we have for the very great part implemented a philosophy of goodwill to fellow writers, partly because life’s nasty, brutish and short enough as it is without us pissing on anyone’s parade, but mainly because the Grand Vizier is of such an evil disposition that he can do with every bit of good karma going. And so, even though the Grand Vizier was happy to host Claire Coughlan's reviews of CHRISTINE FALLS and THE SILVER SWAN, he held off from writing a review of his own of CHRISTINE FALLS, on the basis that it would run something like this: “An affectionate and adequate pastiche, although poorly plotted; unnecessarily verbose, particularly as Banville has spoken of Georges Simenon as an inspiration; a casual approach to the defining characteristics of the genre that borders on disrespect for its traditions; inelegantly paced, particularly during the scarcely plausible last quarter.”
  Now, we know that that opinion runs contrary to most of the reviews CHRISTINE FALLS has received, and from reviewers that the Grand Vizier believes generally get it right. And, yes, due to the Grand Vizier’s lowly position on the publishing ladder (we’re holding it for our betters at the moment), there is a very good chance that the above comments will be read as sour grapes. So be it. Here we stand; we can do no more.
  Curiously enough, given the timing of this post, two other reviews of Benjamin Black’s novels arrived in today along with those quoted above. The first was posted by Erachet at Up The Beanstalk, the gist of which runneth thusly: “Perhaps not so surprising is that what makes the two Black novels, CHRISTINE FALLS and THE SILVER SWAN, so good — their atmospheric, descriptive writing — is precisely Mr. Banville’s great strength, while Benjamin Black, whose third novel is currently being serialized in The New York Times Magazine, is still learning some of the ropes when it comes to plot and suspense.” Then came Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post Books Editor: “Line by line, Banville is a superb, evocative writer (“He was studying a dried puddle of blood, gleaming darkly like Chinese lacquer against the red-painted floorboards.”), and I think it would be fair to say that he wants to make sure you don’t forget it … Mostly, this virtuosity is welcome, because we are privy to the minds of the victims, usually relegated to mere names on a page. These, Banville insists, are real people. But there are other times when virtuosity is all that it is. Beneath the luscious writing and the evocative setting, the book’s bones are quite conventional.”
  A coincidence? Two petty cases of backlash against the hype? Could it be that the upper echelons of the crime writing fraternity have too soon rushed to embrace Benjamin Black in the hope that the genre might bask in the reflected glory of John Banville? Or is it possible that some people are simply acknowledging that John Banville’s THE UNTOUCHABLE doesn’t make Benjamin Black untouchable? You know where the comment box is, people … and there's a free, brand new copy of CHRISTINE FALLS to anyone who can change our minds about it.

8 comments:

Andrew said...

Loved The Untouchables and the The Book of Evidence but I cannot even begin to explain how much I hated The Sea. That alone is putting me off going near the BB books.

Could it be that the upper echelons of the crime writing fraternity have too soon rushed to embrace Benjamin Black in the hope that the genre might bask in the reflected glory of John Banville?

That is a very cromulent question. One I don't suppose I'll be able to answer until I read one of the books but there's too much other stuff to check out first. Benjamin can wait.

critical mick said...

Q. What sound does Benny B make when Christine Falls?

A. FLOP!

I finished the first Quirke novel over a year ago, and can't say that its characters, observations or plot twists have crossed my mind since.

You're safe putting Benjamin on the long finger, Andrew. There's so much interesting writing going on in Irish Crime, it's a shame to see Banville dominating the conversation.

Declan Burke said...

Andrew - A 'cromulent' question? V. post-modern, sir ... And there's a valid question to be asked vis-a-vis whether THE UNTOUCHABLE and THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE aren't crime fiction novels in Banville's post-Black career.

Mick - What annoys me most about Benjamin Black is the potential. Had CHRISTINE FALLS been a genuine debut, I'd have been very excited about it, for what it suggested was possible. But Banville has been very dismissive about the amount of time and effort he puts into Benjamin Black by comparison with his John Banville novels ... Perhaps he should think about giving the Benjamin Black novels the same respect, particularly as they are (belatedly) opening him up to a mainstream audience.

Andrew said...

There's so much interesting writing going on in Irish Crime, it's a shame to see Banville dominating the conversation.

Well, if it serves to make people realise there is a lot more happening in Irish crime then it's worthwhile.

Critical Mick said...

What annoyed me was how little there was in CF that was new. So Ireland in the 50's had Magdeline Laundries! No way!! And politicians are cooked! Shock, horror!

Think of the world of fiction as a Wicklow nature walk in the woods. The best afternoons off are the ones that explore someplace new. So let's not be herded along the beaten path, especially when it heads to Christine Falls.

In that spirit I am sitting here with my thermos of coffee, enjoying KT McCaffrey's The Cat Trap. I had not even known there were wild cats in these parts.

krimileser said...

"The vast majority of said reviews are very positive indeed"

Stupid question, I guess, but do we talk about reviews written by people from Irland, UK, US, or the rest of the planet ?

Declan Burke said...

Krimieser - The positive reviews are coming from Ireland, UK and the US ... I'm afraid I don't know about the rest of the planet. Any feedback from Germany?

krimileser said...

Sorry,

I'm late to reply, but I was rather busy.

If you are at the moment on cloud nine or on the way to it, I think BB's reception wouldn't be the most important issue to you.

Christine Falls received in Germany a rather luckwarm reception. There were some reviews in the larger papers, but several renown reviewers were notably silent. And there were very few reaction on blogs.

One (not so experienced) blogger was badly disappointed, one (not so experienced) blogger was totally thrilled. The more professional reviews mostly liked the language and didn't like the cliches that pave the text. Whether the book at the end is satisfying is a matter of dispute, the majority would say it is rather not a good book.

In fact, your summary seems to sum up the outcome of the discussion nicely.