'A Death In Summer' Starts With A Mysterious Suicide

Writing under the name Benjamin Black, John Banville has created a world built around a pathologist in the Dublin city morgue called Quirke. In his new novel, A Death In Summer, Quirke is brought into the case of a powerful owner of a newspaper chain who's found dead. Host Scott Simon speaks with Banville about this latest mystery.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

John Banville can make a reader gasp with the precise purity and invention of his prose. He's written what are considered to be two modern classics in recent years; "The Sea," which won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, followed by "The Infinities" in 2009. Now, most writers would be satisfied by two successive classics; they might travel a little bit, be lionized at writer's workshops, and otherwise stop to smell the roses before writing about them.

But during this period, John Banville has also written four other novels under another name entirely, Benjamin Black. His books are thrillers, mostly set in Dublin in the 1950s and featuring a pathologist named Quirke - a man who sees as no other into the seamy, steamy side of life. Benjamin Black's most recent novel is "A Death in Summer."

The author joins us from the studios of RTE in Dublin. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN BANVILLE (Author) (as "Benjamin Black"): Glad to be here.

SIMON: And do we speak with you as John Banville or Benjamin Black?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLACK: That's always a hard one to decide. I think I better be Benjamin Black today since this book has just come out.

SIMON: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLACK: But Banville will be leaning over my shoulder. Don't worry.

SIMON: All right. Well, how different are they?

BLACK: Well, their working methods are entirely different. I mean I like to pretend they are two people. But, of course, it's just me.

SIMON: When you say their methods are different, can we know how?

BLACK: Banville writes very, very slowly. His books take two, three, four or five years to write. He writes with a fountain pen - the computer is too fast for him, it moves faster than his mind does. Banville would be glad to get a couple of hundred words written in a day. Black is much more fluent, much more fluid. He works on screen, and he would write maybe 2,000, two-and-a-half thousand words in a day.

SIMON: Let's talk about the story here, "A Death in Summer." The novel opens with your, if you please, celebrity corpse, Richard Jewell. I guess we might now call him the Murdoch of his time - dead in the stables of his estate, holding an exquisite and expensive shotgun. Sure looks like a suicide.

BLACK: Yes, it does look a suicide but a suicide wouldn't be very interesting for the book. So things get more complicated and more murky as it goes along. You know, everybody assumes that I've got it all figured out beforehand. That I have a huge chart on the wall with the plot and the characters all done out. But, of course, I haven't. I mostly make it up as I go along, which is part of the fun. And I hope that that fun communicates itself to the reader.

There should always be something spontaneous. In fact, I think that the distinction between Banville's work and Black's work is with Banville you get concentration. With Black, you get spontaneity.

SIMON: So you, Mr. Black...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...are a little bit more open to spontaneous invention than John Banville?

BLACK: Well, Banville does it in the same way - he makes it up as he goes along, as well. I think most writers do. But Black does it in a much more awake way. You know, writing as Banville for me comes to seem more and more like a form of dreaming, sort of dreaming while you're awake - a controlled dreaming. But Black really can't fall asleep. He has to stay awake and keep an eye on the plot and keep an eye on the characters and what they're doing.

SIMON: What made you want to do it?

BLACK: I happened to have television script that wasn't going to make it to the screen, and I decided to transform that. And one Monday morning, I sat down at the desk and started writing. And by lunchtime, I'd written about - I don't know - 1,500 words. And I was thrilled. I suddenly discovered that I could do it.

SIMON: Were you Benjamin Black?

BLACK: No, I started out obviously being Banville. I knew I would write under a pseudonym but it was always going to be an open pseudonym. I didn't want to hide myself. I just wanted Banville readers to know that this is something different, and it wasn't an elaborate postmodernist literary joke.

SIMON: I want to talk to you about the importance of plot, as Benjamin Black's sees it. You have a wonderful cast of suspects here, including the beautiful grieving, young French widow and a business rival. Do we pay more attention to the traits of a character if we think they figure into something?

BLACK: Well, I would hope so. I mean when I started being Black, I made some promises to myself. And one of them was that I would write plausible fiction. I wanted to write plots that could happen in real life. And a plot begins when somebody has something to hide; this is what drives Quirke - my protagonist in the book. He's not very bright. He's not much of a detective - and I like him for that.

Well, I like him. He's as stupid as the rest of us, you know. He wouldn't recognize a clue if it came up and bit him on the leg. And so, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLACK: ...as I say, he's real. But what the one thing that he does is how his absolutely insatiable curiosity because he's himself an orphan. And when he looks into the past, there's a darkness - a huge darkness that he can't penetrate. And I think that this is what drives his curiosity and his absolute determination to nose out people's secrets.

SIMON: Who sells better, John Banville or Benjamin Black?

BLACK: I don't know. I never ask. Asking about sales, believe me, it's like asking your bank manager about your bank balance, it's always a shock and disappointment, so I don't ask.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Benjamin Black's new book, "A Death In Summer." Thank you so much.

BLACK: Thanks very much. I enjoyed that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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