Speaking at the Harrogate crime writing festival, John Banville betrayed a prejudice we should have outgrown
Writing under his own name, Banville manages around 100 sweated-over, teased, honed and polished words a day; but as Benjamin Black, he can manage a couple of thousand. The intimation was quite clear, "Black's" sentences simply weren't as important. Perhaps realising what he'd unwittingly said, he tried to backtrack, but the damage was done and there was more fuel for his critics. "He's slumming it," author Ruth Dudley Edwards said the following day. "He says he isn't, but he is."
Hill's reaction to this was not to defend the crime writing art, but to deliver a piquant rejoinder. "When I get up in the morning," he said dryly, "I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker prize winning novel, or another bestselling crime book. And we always come down on the side of the crime book." It got the biggest laugh of the weekend, but it did have a serious point. As author and critic Laura Wilson said later, Hill "should have won the Booker already".
And this is the crux of the matter. At its best, crime writing offers unique insights into society, psychology and human behaviour. It can be both engaging and literate; compelling and well-written. It can be innovative and surprising, but what it can't be, it seems, is fated in the same way as literary fiction. The most a crime writer can hope for is to be told, as Ian Rankin indeed was, that their novels "almost transcend their genre". Faint praise indeed.
Yes, much crime writing is formulaic, simply written and full of cheap thrills – and long may this be the case. Lee Child, who spoke with eloquence of the financial necessity of writing popular fiction after being made redundant, knows that his books are not high art, but neither are they worthless. His explanation of how his Jack Reacher series came into being showed how deeply he had considered what readers wanted from a thriller – and how he could keep the concept fresh long past book five.
It was something perhaps Banville might have thought about himself. "The problem is," he said with a rueful smile "that in Ireland in the 1950s [when his Quirke novels are set] there simply wasn't any crime."