Benjamin Black: "I’m gentrifying the crime novel"

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There is a scene in The Jacobs Sisters, by Benjamin Black (Alfaguara), in which the detective interrogates someone related to the victim, a professor from Trinity College in Dublin, who receives him in the university canteen. The professor greets and immediately orders two whiskeys , even though it’s not even 12:00 in the morning yet. The detective tells the professor: “I don’t like to drink before eating.” And the teacher answers «For God’s sake, boy, what are you saying? Nobody likes it”. Next, the novel’s narrator moves the action forward firmly: “And it was struck [el profesor] double whiskey and ordered another. As if leaning in at aperitif time were not a more or less joyful choice but rather a destiny of doom that Benjamin Black’s characters, those of this novel and those of all his novels, carried with sarcasm.

“Drinking is a duty for the Irish,” says John Banville, the writer who signs his crime novels with the name Benjamin Black. And a waitress serves him a glass of white wine at an hour that Banville himself perhaps described as “moderate”. Accompanying wine to Banville is not as unforgettable as reading his books but it is also worth it. As a conversationalist, Banville tends towards chaos and that is why it is very easy to love him: if you ask him about his parents, he ends up telling some sexual gossip about Pope Benedict XVI (unreproducible). If you ask him about Patrick Modiano, he makes a face like ” “This wine is spicy.” But if you tell him that a scene in his book looks like a painting Francis Baconthen he becomes very happy.

We will have to explain The Jacobs Sisters: In Dublin, in 1957, a young woman is found dead in her car, poisoned by the gases from her exhaust pipe. Dr. Quirke, one of Benjamin Black’s classic characters, performs the autopsy and discovers that the woman has not committed suicide, that she has been murdered. Commissioner Stratford, another recurring creature of Black’s, investigates and discovers that The victim was an Irish Jewish woman and sexual liberation activist. and that she was confusingly related to a rich German businessman, a man who came to Ireland after World War II and who obviously has some sinister secret to hide. Then another dead woman, an investigative journalist, turns up in Israel and the two murders seem to connect. Then Quirke and Stratford fight over a woman. Then a very powerful man intervenes in the investigation who secretly warns the police not to take his job too hard. Then, a secondary and tragic character takes the stage who offers a false solution to the mystery. And then… More or less, the kind of material that appears in any crime novel.

Only in Benjamin Black there is always something more, something hazy and evocative. «There are many ways to write crime novels but, in general, they are written quickly, based on characters and a plot and through a series of dialogues and scenes. That is what novelists do and here I imitate them, I pretend that I am in their craft, even if it is only a pretense. I am not a novelist, I am a prose writer, which is something else. When I sign as Benjamin Black, I have no literary or artistic pretensions. Well, the pretensions are coming out over the years. A friend tells me that I am gentrifying crime fiction. It’s not what my editors want to hear, but oh well.

If he sounds a little conceited, don’t take it the wrong way. Banville speaks very often half seriously and half joking, as we all do when we drink wine. And of course his Benjamin Black novels have artistic and intellectual value. Readers of The Jacobs Sisters will encounter in the novel a couple of monologues in favor of evil, absolutely lucid and moral in their own way. The type of texts that those who read the Cleave Trilogy of Banville, that of the novels of the character of Axel Vander.

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