Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Prague Nights’ by Benjamin Black

Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2017.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym Irish writer John Banville uses when he pens crime novels (though he has abandoned that recently with the publication of his most recent cosy crime novels, Snow and April in Spain).

But Prague Nights, set in 1599, is not so much a crime novel but a political intrigue set in the shadowy world of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the eccentric Rudolf II.

Atmospheric murder mystery

This deeply atmospheric tale begins with the narrator, Christian Stern, a 25-year-old doctor and travelling scholar from Bavaria, arriving in Prague one snowy evening. He is drunk and a bit lost when he stumbles upon the body of a young woman lying in the shadow of the castle wall. She’s wearing a glamourous velvet gown with a large gold medallion around her neck, suggesting she comes from wealth, and her throat has been slashed.

He reports her death to the nearest sentry guards and is immediately assumed to be the culprit. He’s thrown into prison and looks set to be put to death for a crime he did not commit. But fate intervenes in the form of His Majesty who has had a dream about a saviour arriving from the west.

‘From your name—Christian Stern—it seems that you must be that God-sent star, for how else would we interpret such a happy confluence, hmm?’

He is told that the woman, Magdalena Kroll, is the daughter of the Emperor’s doctor and is asked to investigate the crime. It is during his enquiries that he discovers she was also the Emperor’s secret lover.

As Stern moves within the court’s circles, looking for motives and trying to determine how he should proceed, he is bewitched by Caterina Sardo — “His Majesty’s concubine and mother of his ill-gotten bastards” — and becomes her lover. This unknowingly puts him in a compromised position, for in Rudolf II’s world it’s difficult to know who to trust and who to avoid. There’s a power struggle going on and Stern risks being caught in the middle.

Later, when a second body — a man believed to have been romantically involved with Magdalena —  is found floating in the river, with his eyes gouged out and terrible rope burns on his neck, it appears that someone might have taken the law into their own hands. Stern soon realises his investigation is at risk of being derailed because too many powerful people have a stakehold in the outcome. What he does next could put his own life in grave danger.

Not a conventional crime tale

Prague Nights isn’t a conventional crime story. There’s not much of a plot other than to follow one hapless naive man’s attempt to find out how Magdalena was murdered.

I’d argue this story is actually historical fiction, perhaps even literary fiction, because it is character-led, features a wonderfully evocative setting and the dense, detailed prose is ripe with Banville-esque descriptions (he loves to tell us about the clothes people are wearing in rich, filmic detail, for instance), witty asides, metaphors and similes:

I felt, when he held me in his grip like this, that we were a pair of skaters halted motionless upon the thinnest of ice, our skates about to buckle beneath us, or the ice to crack, or one of us to fall and bring the other down with him.

What makes the story compelling is not so much discovering who murdered Magdalena but in wondering whether Stern is going to get away with his role in the Emperor’s inner circle given that he is sleeping with the Emperor’s mistress. There’s a whole series of untrustworthy characters with whom he has to deal, each one with an agenda to grind and each with the ability to thwart his investigation and expose his affair, providing a sinister, shadowy feel to the story.

This is an intriguing novel. It’s not fast-paced, so don’t expect a page-turner. Instead, this is a story to linger over, to soak up the language and the 16th Century Bohemian setting, and to experience the dangers that confront the main characer on almost every page.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lemur’ by Benjamin Black

The Lemur

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 2009; 185 pages.

Ghostwriters or journalists who get themselves into trouble while researching the books that they are writing is not a new idea in fiction — think Robert Harris’ The Ghost and Alan Glynn’s Bloodland for a start. Into this “genre” comes The Lemur, a stand-alone novella by John Banville writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

But this is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Fast-paced and full of classy prose (and classy characters), it has all the hallmarks of a book that could have been written any time in the past 60 years: it feels like a good old-fashioned classic, with a nod to the likes of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, but is set in modern day Manhattan, with its glass canyons and chaotic streets ringing with the constant sound of police sirens.

The story is a slight one — a biographer hires a researcher who uncovers a dangerous secret but is murdered before the secret can be told — but in Black/Banville’s hands it feels like a much grander narrative.

A man with a secret

Essentially, The Lemur goes something like this: John Glass, a renowned Irish journalist, has married into a rich American family headed by billionaire William “Big Bill” Mulholland, a former CIA operative who has made his money in spyware electronics. When Mulholland discovers that another journalist, Wilson Cleaver, is planning a hostile biography of him, he hires his son-in-law, Glass, to pen the official version for the grand sum of $1million.

But Glass, feeling slightly out of his depth, decides to hire a researcher to help him on the project. And this is where he meets the “Lemur” of the title — a young researcher by the name of Dylan Riley, who already seems to know a lot about Mulholland. Glass is immediately suspicious of him, not the least because “with that long neck and little head and those big, shiny eyes, he bore a strong resemblance to one of the more exotic rodents”.

Things take a turn for a worse when a day after their first meeting Riley tries to blackmail Glass for $500,000:

“No, you look,” the Lemur said, in a new, harsh and suddenly unadolescent-sounding voice. “You used to be the real thing, Glass. A lot of us believed in you, followed your example. Now look at you.” He gave a snort of disgust. “Well, sell out to your father-in-law the spook if you like. Tell the world what a sterling guy he is, the unacknowledged Cold War conscience of the West, the man who urged negotiations with Castro and a safe passage for Allende to Russia — as if he’d have wanted to go, the poor schmuck. Go ahead, write his testament, and peddle your soul for a mess of dollars. But I know something that will tear you people apart, and I think you should pay me, I think you WILL pay me, to keep it all in the family.”

But the next day, the Lemur is found dead, shot through the eye with a Beretta. What is the secret he knew? And has he told anyone else? And why are the police suddenly asking Glass a lot of questions?

Edgy and filmic

The Lemur might be a relatively simply tale — there’s nary a red herring to be seen and the narrative is far too short to twist and turn in the way of a conventional thriller — but it definitely holds the attention, probably because the author makes every scene, no matter how small, feel edgy and combative: you’re never quite sure which character in a given situation is going to come off the worse for wear.

As one would expect from a Booker prize-winning author, the prose is rich and alive but Banville reigns things in beautifully: there are no literary flourishes, just good writing with a distinct filmic quality to it.

Likewise, the characters are exemplarily drawn — the bullish but aloof father-in-law; the impeccably dressed and successful wife; the intriguing and artistic mistress; the arrogant “young pretender” step son; the once-famed journalist wrestling with his conscience and afraid to lose all — while the razor-sharp dialogue moves things along at a clipping pace.

The ending, while plucked from the usual “family secret” book of cliches, is satisfying in its own little way. But this is not the kind of book you read for the denouement; it’s the pleasurable journey you experience along the way that makes The Lemur such a beguiling read.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ireland, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Christine Falls’ by Benjamin Black

ChristineFalls

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 384 pages; 2006.

It’s no secret that the author of this book, Benjamin Black, is actually Booker prize-winning novelist John Banville in disguise. Which partly explains why I rushed out and bought this in hardcover. I’m a longtime Banville fan and was intrigued as to how he would handle the crime genre given he’s largely made his name on the back of (high brow) literary fiction.

Christine Falls is certainly an intriguing and arresting read. I might have been holed up in my sick bed at the time, but I think my reaction would have been the same regardless: I just could not bear to put this book down and finished it in one sitting.

Essentially the story, which is set in 1950s Dublin, is about a pathologist, the love-worn Quirke, who discovers a colleague, Griffin, altering a file to cover up the cause of death of a young woman called Christine Falls.

Seeking to discover the real cause of the woman’s death, Quirke finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy, which involves not only Griffin but the upper echelons of Dublin society and the Catholic Church. Its tentacles stretch across the Atlantic to New England, and goes back several generations. The closer Quirke gets to unravelling this conspiracy, the more dangerous his investigation becomes and before long he’s being warned off in no uncertain terms.

Black/Banville adds additional layers to this quite straightforward storyline. He makes Griffin the foster brother of Quirke. This is further complicated by the fact that Quirke and Griffin married a set of sisters and that Quirke, who is widowed, has always carried a torch for the other sister. Quirke is especially close to his niece and is often accused of leading her astray, so there’s a lot of family tension to propel the story along.

Throw in a second narrative about a young American couple in New England who adopt a baby from a local Catholic orphanage and you get a well-rounded, multi-layered narrative with enough depth and breadth to keep even the most jaded reader interested.

And, as you would expect from such an experienced and accomplished author, all the various threads of the book are neatly tied together at the end, although I largely guessed the conclusion long before I reached it. Despite this, I found Christine Falls a deeply satisfying read.

This is aided, no doubt, by the Quirke character, who is beautifully realised and all too human. His tragic past adds a certain depth, and I especially liked his strong moral compass.

Setting the story in 1950s Dublin is yet another stroke of genius: it lends Christine Falls the required claustrophobia to make the novel a little darker, a little edgier than having set it in modern times.

But ultimately, I’m not sure this is a typical crime novel. It’s certainly no police procedural and it’s not exactly a detective story. Perhaps literary ‘mystery’ might be a truer description.

And for those of you who might have struggled with Banville’s style in the past, I can report that he has toned down his usual feats of literary flamboyance: the writing is very immediate and easy to comprehend, so there’s no need to keep a dictionary at hand. Good news, no doubt, for those of you who read on public transport!