It's never been a secret that Benjamin Black is really Man Booker Prize winner John Banville. Even the copy accompanying the author's photo on the inside-back flap of the dust jacket proclaims, "Bennamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed author John Banville..." So why bother with a pen name?
Some might see it as a literary author's defense against accusations of slumming. (How dare he write something as common as a "crime novel!") But those who follow Banville's various articles and interviews know that, surprisingly enough, he is a huge fan of the Parker novels Donald E. Westlake writes unter the pen name Richard Stark. These days, everyone knows that Stark is really Westlake, but the pen name remains. So Banville might be paying homage to Westlake by adopting a different writing persona and a different name to go along with it, as Westlake continues to do for the more noir-ish Parker stories.
Names aside, the question remains: is this a book that crime fiction fans should read? And the answer is: Oh, yes! You should.
Without sacrificing the intense psychological insights of his characters, Banville-as-Black gives slightly more emphasis to plot development and has produced a very impressive, very involving and, yes, literary crime novel.
The setting is Dublin in the 1950s and the main character is Quirke Girffin, a moody, hard-drinking pathologist who si more comfortable among the dead than he is the living. One evening, following an office party, Quirke discovers his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, a prominent obstetrician, altering the file of a recently deceased young woman named Christing Falls. It doesn't take long for Quirke to determine that Malachy has tampered with the woman's cause of death, and he sets out to find out why. What he uncovers not only solves the mystery of Christine Falls, but causes him to reconsider his family and his life.
This is a richly rewarding reading experience, as Banville/Black manages to balance the interior observations and emotions of each of the characters while maintaining the pace and moving the plot developments foward in a manner that keeps the reader turning pages until the end. And the descriptions of both the damp, pub-lined streets of Dublin, as well as the wintery Boston countryside (where the narrative shifts toward the end) are a evocative as anything Banville has written under his own name.
This is the kind of book crime fictions fans can show readers of mainstream fiction to prove that a crime/suspense novel can be as literary and moving as any work of fiction (much like the recent works of, say, George P. Pelecanos, and several others). According to the dust jacket copy, this is the first in an intended series featuring Quirke Griffin. And that's good news for all who enjoy excellent writing, deeply introspective and moody emotions along with their dark doings.