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.”