Genre snobbery is alive and kicking, writes Hephzibah Anderson, with John Banville writing thrillers under the catchy nom de plume Benjamin Black.
The Silver Swan Benjamin Black Picador Dh52
If you'd any doubt that genre snobbery remains alive and kicking in English-language literature, the hoo-ha surrounding this year's Man Booker Prize longlist announcement would have been confirmation enough. Hidden among the 13 nominees, sandwiched between Salman Rushdie's latest and Aravind Adiga's debut, was Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, a tale of exile and idealism set against the petrified backdrop of Stalinist Russia. At its heart is a brutal child murder, and this is what made its inclusion so controversial: not only is it gripping and impressively well crafted, it also happens to be a thriller. In the end, Child 44 did not make the final cut, but the debate it whipped up turned out to be the high point in an otherwise dull contest.
John Banville, who won the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea, has published three novels since collecting his award. All have been thrillers and none, unsurprisingly, has appeared under his own name. Instead, their spines bear the catchy nom de plume Benjamin Black. The Silver Swan features his reluctant sleuth, Quirke. A rumpled pathologist in 1950s Dublin, Quirke is burdened with all the emotional baggage that you expect from the hero of a crime novel. Having lost Sarah, the woman he loved, to another man, he married her sister, Delia. When she died in childbirth, he handed his daughter, Phoebe, over to Sarah and her husband, letting the girl grow up believing them to be her parents. Now that Sarah is also dead and 22-year-old Phoebe has learnt the truth, Quirke is trying on the role of father. Meanwhile, his former mentor, a man whose career he once tried to wreck, is on his deathbed. As if that weren't enough, he is also struggling to stay on the wagon, having finally given up drinking.
The novel opens with a young woman's body being fished from the sea - an apparent suicide. Deirdre Hunt was a beautiful redhead who married one of Quirke's old college acquaintances. Using the alias Laura Swan, she also ran a thriving beauty salon. When Quirke performs the autopsy, he spots a tiny puncture mark on Deirdre's arm. Possessed by an "itch to cut to the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hidden - to know," he eventually unearths blackmail, addiction and the truth behind a mysterious "spiritual healer."
Banville's writing under his own name is distinguished by a linguistic luminosity that is rivalled only by its stasis. At its best, the prose is so rich that the lack of event barely registers. Still, this would hamper a whodunit. While there are phrases here that make you catch your breath, so deft is their beauty, stuff does actually happen. Two people are murdered, punches are thrown, blood is spilt and romance flares up. The protagonists seem mystified to find themselves ensnared it in all, questioning each new twist and turn as if they had wandered into the wrong novel.
Black's Dublin is a rainy, soulful metropolis in which violence lurks in unlikely places. A bunch of violets, for instance, looks like "some small, many-headed creature that had been accidentally strangled." And though its visuals are sepia-toned, it is a place of vivid scents. Ultimately, it is not Quirke who solves the crime but a deceptively plodding policeman named Hackett. Once revealed, the answer seems stunningly obvious. But by that point, Black has reeled you into a far larger drama - the drama of a man and his city - such that the novel's close feels less an ending than a pause. Here's hoping that Black doesn't let Banville back to his writing desk just yet.
Diary of a Bad Year JM Coetzee Vintage Dh52
The general consensus is that literature's Nobel is not what it once was. But could it be that as well as honouring the wrong authors, the prize puts a hex on creativity even when the judges get it right? Doris Lessing claims to have hit writers' block since her 2007 victory, and JM Coetzee, a popular winner back in 2003, has not published anything stellar since. Not that his latest novel is bad, exactly, but readers may well conclude that it isn't worth the effort. A tricksy blend of essays and fiction, it centres on a 72-year-old novelist named JC, who lives in Australia and has been commissioned to write a collection of non-fiction pieces covering everything from Guantanamo Bay to JS Bach. These essays fill the top half of each page; his diary extracts unfurl down below, chronicling an unseemly infatuation with his typist, Anya, a black-haired beauty from South America. Eventually, Coetzee lets Anya speak for herself, adding a third element to the novel and enlivening a tale reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. "Why do you write this stuff?" she complains of the essays. "Why don't you write another novel instead?" And though the essays contribute to an elaborately constructed riff on creativity and love, it's hard not to agree with her.
Will Christopher Rush Beautiful Books Dh58
Shakespeare scholars have published exhaustively on every aspect of the Bard's life. You can read books about his wit and his wife, about his coded politics and his apparent rivalries. With the shelves already so overcrowded, Christopher Rush has taken a more unusual, not to say audacious route. Rather than producing yet another biography, he presents us with Shakespeare's supposed autobiography, a bawdy deathbed monologue in which the world's most famous writer looks back over his years. An intimidating task, you might think, putting words into the mouth of the mighty Shakespeare. But Rush barely flinches, approaching his task with a devil-may-care bravado. In an endnote, he excuses his decision to embrace anachronisms, explaining his desire to "impart a modern feel to the language, allowing Will to speak directly to the third millennium reader." Generally, his approach pays off, resulting in a garrulous account of Will's rise from humble beginnings to famous author. He recounts learning about the dangers of politics and the plague, and encountering the starry but lethal worlds of London society. Though fictional, this tale is steeped in fact and borrows phrases and situations from Will's plays, making irresistible reading for any armchair Shakespearean.
My Sister, My Love Joyce Carol Oates Fourth Estate Dh82
Joyce Carol Oates is a writer of thrilling ability and range, yet neither is quite as awesome as her prolificacy. Unfortunately, quantity seems to have begun trumping quality. Last year's novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter, drew on haunting material from her own family tree but read like several books bound needlessly together as one. This latest, her 35th novel, weighs in at almost 600 pages - and feels longer. Though an opening disclaimer denies it, the book appears to take its cue from the notorious unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsay, the American child beauty pageant queen. In Oates' tale, an ethereal six-year-old ice-skating prodigy named Bliss Rampike is found bludgeoned to death in her family's New Jersey home. A decade later her brother, Skyler, now 19, looks back on the murder and its aftermath, hoping to make peace with his own feelings about his late sister and her macabre celebrity. In the years since, he has had to deal with the acrimonious breakdown of his parents' marriage, a second traumatic death and the public's suspicion that he was his sister's killer (plus all the regular humiliations of high school). While Oates sheds convincing light on the murky world of child stardom and ends with a pleasing cliffhanger, she has tried to cram far too much into this grisly tale.