Arts

John Banville / Benjamin Black bound for first Belfast crime writing festival

Booker prize-winner John Banville has taken on the challenge of channelling his literary hero Henry James with his latest novel, Mrs Osmond, a sequel to the classic The Portrait of a Lady. He talks to Joanne Sweeney about the book and about his crime-writing alter ego Benjamin Black, ahead of his appearance at a new Belfast crime fiction festival

John Banville will be in Belfast for the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival on Friday October 27
 

IF IT'S good enough for Irish writer John Banville, then it's good enough for Harry Potter creator JK Rowling – both eminent writers have enjoyed success with their crime-writing alter egos.

While Rowling was unmasked in the media four years ago as the writer Robert Galbraith on her first outing with The Cuckoo's Calling, Man Booker prize-winner Banville started the trend earlier with his seven crime novels, which he penned under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Banville won the 2005 Booker award for his novel The Sea, set along the Irish coastline.

Inspired by his own experiences of Dublin in the 1950s and 60s, Black/Banville first introduced us to Dublin pathologist Quirke in the 2006 novel Christine Falls as his capable but slightly dysfunctional protagonist.

Later this month the 71-year-old Wexford-born author will be mixing with crime literati as part of the inaugural Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival (October 27-29), spearheaded by David Torrans of Belfast's No Alibis book store.

Banville will be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Belfast crime-writing star Adrian McKinty and Jed Mercurio, the man behind hit BBC crime drama Line of Duty, plus the show's star, Adrian Dunbar.

Scandi crime writing luminary Arne Dahl – also a pen name, incidentally – is on the bill, as is US author Robert Crais, who as well as writing bestselling detective fiction has written for classic cop shows Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey and Miami Vice. Then there's Dublin actor Aidan Gillen, who though most famous for his role in Game of Thrones, starred in seminal crime series The Wire and Love/Hate and is a lifelong fan of the genre.

While the Black novels have won Banville a legion of fans, as well as plaudits – he won the Edgar Award for Christine Falls – it seems that the former newspaper man, who often refers to himself as Banville and Black in the third person, is not as happy with his commercial success as a crime writer.

"I left journalism and I needed somebody to do a day job for me. He was supposed to make some money. I wish he would hurry up and do it," says Banville ruefully, as he explains why he took to crime after leaving The Irish Times, where, after moving from The Irish Press, he had been a sub-editor and then literary editor.

"I’m sorry now that I let people know it was me as I think some people are put off when they think that’s someone pretending to be someone else. So maybe I might need a new pseudonym. But I'll not tell anyone. I might have more success then."

His writing is once again being much talked about, with the release of two new novels in the past five months, Prague Nights, a historical crime drama set in 1599 written as Black, and Mrs Osmond, an imagined sequel to the Henry James's 1881 classic The Portrait of a Lady, written as Banville.

Mrs Osmond tells what happens after enigmatic American Isobel (Archer) Osmond finds out that her husband, conspiring with his mistress, Madame Merle, wooed her in order to get her fortune and to hide their own relationship and illegitimate daughter.

Banville considers James "the greatest of them all" as a novelist. He first came upon the book in his twenties when he holidayed in Florence and happened to be staying a short distance from where James actually wrote the novel.

"Mrs Osmond is homage to Henry James, a salute from me to a novelist,” he says. “I think that The Portrait of a Lady is certainly a masterpiece of his middle years. I also regard The Portrait of a Lady as a feminist novel. It's before its time but I’m not sure if Henry James knew what he was doing."

Was it easy to emulate his writing idol?

"I wouldn’t say it was easy but I found that I could do it as I seem to be good at mimicking other writers, but that wasn’t my intention. I wanted to write in the spirit of Henry James rather than to parrot him. I found to my surprise it was easier than expected."

It's not the first time, and maybe not the last, that Banville tried a different genre and writing style; in 2014 he wrote The Black-Eyed Blonde, as Black, under the guise of Raymond Chandler, about his hero detective Philip Marlowe.

Is Banville paying homage or showing off his writerly dexterity, I ask him?

"I'm paying homage but I’m also stealing from them," he replies. "Oscar Wilde said that if you give a man a mask, he will tell you the truth, so to have the mask of somebody else’s style makes it easier [to write] somehow.

“It’s easier to know how to proceed in another’s style than one’s own as one really hasn't got a style as oneself. Everyone else can recognise your signature but your signature is different every time you write."

:: Crime writer Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, will be in conversation with David Torrans at the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival at Friday, October 27 at the Europa Hotel. Ticket and full programme information at noireland.com

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