John Banville: channelling Chandler

With Quirke, he pounded the pavements of 1950s Dublin. Now the novelist takes on the great LA gumshoe Philip Marlowe

John Banville: ‘I hate the summer.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

John Banville: ‘I hate the summer.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 01:00

‘It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it’s being watched . . . ”

The style is instantly recognisable. The novel is called The Black-Eyed Blonde. Aha. Raymond Chandler, right? Wrong. This is Chandler as channeled by the author of the six Quirke mysteries, Benjamin Black. Who is, of course, the novelist John Banville. Who is sitting opposite me in the Morrison Hotel in Dublin drinking a glass of white wine. His elegant felt hat sits on a stool of its own. It has the air, I think somewhat giddily, of a hat that has already been to the bar to order a gin gimlet.

Because let’s face it, the whole Banville/Black thing has been discombobulating – to say the least. For years we read Banville’s literary novels with admiring eyes and dropped jaws. Then, pretty much overnight, he turned into Benjamin Black, crime writer. Now we have another ID to chuck into the mix as Banville/Black morphs into Chandler. Not so much a “whodunnit” as a “which of them dunnit this time”?

In person, of course, Banville isn’t discombobulating at all. He is opinionated, mischievous and ready to talk about everything from his most recent literary novel, Ancient Light, (and its unlikely link with Fifty Shades of Grey) to what he did last summer.

Last summer – the hot one, yes? Banville looks puzzled. He doesn’t remember that bit. “I hate the summer,” he says, mournfully. “I always write a Benjamin Black book in the summer to avoid going out.”

In the summer of 2013 it was The Black-Eyed Blonde that kept Banville indoors as he sent the father of all private eyes, Philip Marlowe, on another case involving a missing person, a femme fatale and that vigilant typewriter. “At first I intended to change Marlowe,” he says. “Do a modern take on him, and so on. But when I read the books again I thought, ‘Why interfere with it? It works perfectly well as it is.’ So I just wrote a book as if by Chandler.”

Easy, eh? Just tap out The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye – works of classic hardboiled crime fiction that are regarded in the US with a respect bordering on reverence – in a couple of months. Where do you even start? With the style, or with Marlowe? “Oh. Well, they’re inextricably linked,” he says. “I started by reading Chandler again. You read it differently when you’re going to imitate it, so I saw a lot of his stylistic ‘tricks’, in the best sense of the word. For instance, he can’t leave a sentence alone. He’ll say something like ‘I walked into the room but I would rather have been walking out’. There’s always a little twist. That’s one of his stylistic traits that I like a lot.”

Unlike most readers of Chandler, Banville is not a fan of the famously OTT metaphors and similes. “I think that’s the least interesting part of his writing. He was about as inconspicuous as . . . a tarantula on a slice of angel cake’. Or whatever. It’s laboured.”

When it comes to plotting, on the other hand, Banville, Black and Chandler are all on the same page. “Chandler never cared about the crime, or who did it - and neither do I,” Banville says. “His books are strange: halfway between pulp fiction and literature, whatever ‘literature’ is. But that was his revolution, that he took pulp fiction and made something new out of it. And he has been hugely influential. If you look at almost anything on HBO, it has Chandler written all over it. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men ; they all have the stylish Chandler thing. Memorable, odd characters on the sidelines. A main character who’s very charismatic, but ambiguous.”

When you get right down to it, he says, Chandler is all about Marlowe.

“I love Marlowe. I didn’t realise it, but when I started doing Quirke, I got a lot of Quirke out of Chandler.” How so?

“Well, he’s solitary. I think the essential trait of Marlowe is his impenetrable loneliness. He has nobody. No family, no relatives, no friends. He has a rented house. No possessions. A chess set; that’s about it.”

At the centre of the character is a strong sense of justice. “He lives at a very unjust time in a very unjust place but he has this sense that there’s a right and a wrong way to do things. He’s a better man than Quirke. Quirke is selfish and unfeeling; Quirke is much more damaged than Marlowe.”

Especially as played by Gabriel Byrne in the recent television adaptation? Banville shakes his head. He had nothing to do with the programme, he says, so he can’t comment on it. He has, however, plenty to say about television as a promoter of crime fiction. “HBO and those channels are doing what mainstream fiction used to do - reflect society and tell stories - and they’re doing it very well indeed.

“We’re bombarded nowadays with images of violence. On television, in the cinema, on the news, in newspapers, everything is violence, violence, violence. I mean, there’s practically a murder a day here in this little country of ours. But the fact is that most of us, certainly the people who buy books and read them, none of us will see any real violence in our lives. So we have this worry that we’re missing out on something.

“This is why people turn to TV crime series. Take The Sopranos. They learned a great lesson from the Godfather films, which is that you can have a strong narrative, you can have strong characters, you can have a novelistic approach to the narrative. But every 10 or 15 minutes, somebody has to be taken out and beaten to a pulp or fed to the sharks or melted in vats of acid. That’s what keeps vast audiences glued to the screen; that slight, fizzing sense that something dreadful is going to happen.”

Only in American crime series, surely? What about Nordic dramas such as The Killing, which has very few killings, and is completely character-driven? “Oh, well, the first series of The Killing was superb. But it still had that sense of dread. I was very proud of myself. I got the killer halfway through that series. Do you know how? Because if there’s a character, a very minor character, and he or she keeps coming in. That’s the thing. This guy was hanging round all the time. I thought, It has to be him.”

Anyhow, in a world where moving images are so dominant, it is, according to Banville, something of a miracle that people are still reading text in a sustained way. “My last book, Ancient Light , came out at the time of Fifty Shades of Grey. And the character of Mrs Gray [in Ancient Light ] was an erotic figure so interviewers used to say to me, ‘Aren’t you angry that people are reading the wrong grey?’ But I don’t care what people are reading. It’s only because we’re so used to it that we’ve forgotten what a miraculous thing this is, the process of changing black dots on a white page into images in your mind. Your imagination working a transformative magic.

“I would prefer to see people reading my books than reading Fifty Shades of Grey but that’s not going to happen. ‘Great literature’ was never popular, and never will be; and it shouldn’t have a huge audience. This is why I’m two people. Writing Benjamin Black to make a living so that I will be free to do exactly what I want to do as John Banville. I worked in journalism for 35 years doing the same thing.”

Will he write another Chandler book? “It depends how this one does,” he says. “I mean if it’s just ignored, or if people take it just as a curiosity, then no. But if people read it as Chandler, and enjoy it, then I probably would. I have a sort of a notion that I might bring Quirke to America and have him and Marlowe meet up.” He sips his wine and offers a sideways Marlowe-esque grin. “Wouldn’t that be good?”

The Black-Eyed Blonde is published by Mantle at £16.99 in UK