It looks like rain in Dublin, pearl grey clouds piled low above the Liffey. Which is fine by John Banville. The Booker prize-winning novelist won’t hear a word against the Irish weather. “I think this climate is superb,” he says. “It’s absolutely perfect. Nabokov – a writer I admire – said there’s no such thing as bad weather. If you don’t like the weather, you don’t like the world. You don’t like your life.”
It’s something viewers of Quirke, BBC1’s new noir crime series set in 1950s Dublin, might bear in mind. There is a lot of weather in Quirke. The eponymous hero, played by Gabriel Byrne, shoulders his way through streets slick with rain and secrets. The three-part series is adapted from the wonderfully atmospheric, bestselling novels of Benjamin Black and Quirke, the subject of six of these books, a brilliant, troubled pathologist, seems set to join Morse, House et al in the ranks of sad, sexy detectives with no first name. Banville rates Black – but then he would, as Banville and Black are the same man.
“We’re all multiple selves,” he argues. Banville the writer of literary fiction (his 2005 Booker Prize winner The Sea was recently released as a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Charlotte Rampling) is a different creature altogether from his bestselling alter ego. “The analogy I always use is the man who gets up from his lover’s bed and goes into the street and meets his worst enemy – he’s two different people. And I earned my living in daily newspapers for 30, 35 years. I was a sub-editor [at The Irish Press]. I would write during the day and then I would go into the office for the night shift. And that was two different people. It’s nothing new for me.
“I know that there are people who much prefer the Black books. After the publication of Christine Falls [the first Quirke book, published in 2006], my late cousin said to me, “God, Jack. At last you’ve written a book that I can read.”
For Banville, a good day’s work is 200 words of prose, written in longhand, with pen and ink. Black clatters out 2,000 words a day on a computer. “In a way, Black is a kind of relaxation for me,” says Banville. “Real crime writers get furious when they hear me say this kind of thing, but I don’t mean to be scathing. I have, I hope, a realistic view of Black, what he does and what his ambitions are. He’s proud to be a craftsman and I’m proud of those books in the way that I would be proud of a beautifully finished table or chair that I had made. There’s great pleasure to be had in making craftwork. There’s not much pleasure to be had in making art.
“Put another way, Black is a tightrope walker – you get onto the rope, don’t look down, never hesitate. Banville is a mole digging away in the dark, hoping that some day he’ll find his way up into the light.”
In either mode, the prose runs clear as gin; it is evident, even in conversation, that the author cannot form an ungraceful sentence.
“Quirke’s the complete opposite to me,” he says, neatly flamboyant with his flowing, cashmere scarf. “Quirke’s classically handsome, irresistible to women. And Gabriel gets that brooding, deeply unhappy quality that Quirke has.”
Fans of the books may be surprised by the casting. Quirke, as written, is big and broad and blond, but Banville/Black is relaxed about the adaptation process: “I always laugh at people who moan and whine about what’s been done to their work,” he says. “I just hand it over to the film people and say, ‘That’s yours, my job is done.’ Apart from anything else, it would be very bad for your liver if you worried about it.”
One suspects, however, that there is rather more autobiography in Black’s writing than in Banville’s. The 1950s Dublin of Quirke has all the sensual texture of memory. “I’m 68 now, so I was about ten when these books are set,” he explains. “I was born down in Wexford on the 8th of December, which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the day that all the country people used to – probably still do – come to Dublin to do their Christmas shopping. We’d leave Wexford on the seven o’clock train, in the dark, dawn would be breaking as we got to Galway, and arriving in Dublin, for me, a little boy, was pure magic.
“Still, sometimes, when I smell diesel fumes from a bus, I get the rush of romantic feeling. So when I started doing the Quirke books, it was great fun to trawl through my memory, to see what I could bring back from that period. And I think the films have caught the period remarkably well. There are very beautiful parts of the city – Upper Mount Street, where Quirke lives and where I lived as a young man, is one of the most beautiful streets I know – but the film also captures that repressive, murky atmosphere that makes old Dublin perfect for noir fiction.”
Certainly Quirke’s Dublin is no tourist-board fantasy. It is a city of dark alleys and darker motives, a city of sins hushed up. Quirke is an orphan, educated in an industrial school – a brutal kind of reformatory – run by the Christian Brothers, and the Roman Catholic Church does not emerge well from plotlines about exported babies, incest and abuse.
“When I was growing up, the only sin was sexual,” Banville recalls. “You could steal, you could murder, but if you got a girl pregnant… The thing is, we didn’t know how much of a stranglehold the Church had on us. We thought we were free and that Eastern Europe was under the jackboot of atheistic Communism. We didn’t realise that the Church was our Communist Party. It ran every part of our lives.
“When I was going to primary school with the Christian Brothers, kids would just disappear. No one would ask, they just weren’t there any more and we knew they’d been sent to an industrial school – they’d been sent to the gulag. For girls it was the Magdalene laundries. For adults, it was the asylum. There was a man put into an asylum because his sister was thought to be promiscuous. And the well-heeled middle class of Dublin would get rid of its little mistakes thanks to back-street abortionists.”
While Quirke pulls no punches, Banville is wary of sensationalism. “One thing that worries me about crime series these days is just how violent they all are. I mean, they nearly all start off with some young woman being raped and murdered and cut up and thrown in a dustbin.”
Extreme violence presented as “realism” is, he argues, fundamentally fallacious. “The vast majority of us, we go through life and we never see any violence. We might get mugged or something, but it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever see a murder. If the Wallander books were real, the entire population of Ystad would be halved by now. But we’re bombarded with images of violence in the news and feel that somehow we’re not living authentically if we’re not in touch with violence. I think that’s what it is. The more ‘realistic’ these stories are, the more we love them.”
It is noticeable, too, that the dead who fetch up in Quirke’s pathology lab are afforded as much authorial care as the living characters. This is partly a device – if you don’t know the victim, you can’t care about their murder – but mainly, says Banville, it’s human courtesy: “Human beings are not expendable. A murdered human being is an extraordinary thing. A tragic thing. And I think crime writers have a duty to observe this.” It is this, the enormity of death, that is the stone at the heart of Quirke. The characters are engaging, the procedurals engrossing, but, ultimately, Black/ Banville’s dogged pathologist probes at existential truth. “I think that’s right,” says Banville. “Existentialism is, as the word implies, about the very basics of existence, living and dying. And crime intensifies the sense of reality. I think a human being would never feel so much alive as when he or she is taking the life of another human being.”
It seems almost wilful that just as Quirke is hitting the screens, his author has decided to retire him. “I’m doing another Black book now that is set in the present day and hasn’t got Quirke in it. I’ve put him away now for a while. He’s down in the crypt in his coffin. He needed a rest. But he’s a vampire, so I can bring him out into the light any time I like.”
What prompted the decision to step away from the slab? Boredom? Buried fear that Benjamin Black might eclipse John Banville? Banville doesn’t know. Or maybe he’s taking an artist’s version of the Fifth.
“All decisions are made in retrospect,” he says. We think we make a decision. We don’t. We drift, we drift, we drift…”