When John Banville compared himself to a sheep venturing among wolves, there were those who felt he was being a touch disingenuous. Banville was referring to a controversial appearance at the Harrogate crime writing festival wearing his "Benjamin Black" hat, as the writer of a Dublin-set historical crime-fiction series rather than as heavyweight literary novelist. In front of an audience of crime writers and aficionados, he was widely perceived to have suggested that he did not grant his crime novels the same level of seriousness as his literary work; the former were mere jeux d'esprit to be dispatched quickly, while his real achievement required far more attention.
Banville seemed surprised at the noses he had put out of joint. But the crime-writing fraternity is famously prickly about its lack of respectability. However, Banville overlooked another factor in the brouhaha – the way his Benjamin Black novels are received among many crime-fiction practitioners.
Just a few pages of the latest outing (featuring his pathologist protagonist, Quirke) demonstrate just what a stylist he is; a writer whose use of English can create an almost sensuous frisson. The bloody shotgun murder of a newspaper magnate has Quirke on the trail of a killer; the Dublin here has a richness reminiscent of the city's greatest chronicler, Joyce, while the 1950s are evoked with pinpoint precision.
But then we come to the sticking point, and the reason why crime writers were grumbling in the wine bars of Harrogate after the perceived slight: Black's plotting. As ever, everything is supremely functional but seems utilitarian rather than inspired. The mechanics of the investigation will be familiar to the avid consumer of the genre: the apparent suicide quickly nailed by the sleuth as murder; the array of suspects who might want an unpopular man dead; the divided family; the misdirection. All are present and correct, but the least interesting things about the novel.
Raymond Chandler, too, spent little time on his plots; his genius was to reinvent the tropes of detective fiction so consummately that readers barely noticed the rickety narrative structure. But despite his descriptive skills, Black's use of such legerdemain is less sure. In the final analysis, however, and putting such reservations aside, A Death in Summer is still a highly professional and engaging piece of work.