Benjamin Black is the pseudonym for Booker-prize winning author John Banville, and this novel reads very much like a practitioner of high literary fic...moreBenjamin Black is the pseudonym for Booker-prize winning author John Banville, and this novel reads very much like a practitioner of high literary fiction swapped his tweed blazer for a trench coat. And yet Banville does not seem able to match the concomitant gait and attitude of the trench-coat wearing type.
First, there's the dense, mellifluous prose, which was very enjoyable to read on the one hand, but as the action got underway it began to bog the story down. I'm all for delayed gratification and readerly tension, but there were frequent long, rangy paragraphs of scenery description plunked down in the middle of otherwise well-paced and sharp-eared dialogue, and overlong otherwise lovely passages of internality that proved to be distractions from the action. Still, the narrative is written in an elegant and confident free indirect style that constantly reminds you that this Banville guy really knows what he's doing when it comes to putting words down on the page. But the more crime novels I read the more I develop a bias in favor of those slim 200- to 250-page novels that are all story with only minimal scenery.
And then there is the plot, which I will not go into in detail lest I have to hide behind a spoiler alert, save to say that although the story does indeed develop into a pleasing, somewhat tense rolling boil after a while, the central mystery--which is really more of a conspiracy--at the heart of the novel amounts to very little in the end. Indeed, it seems like the most interesting part of the story is set to occur after the novel ends.
Finally, I found myself getting irked at some of the protagonist's characteristics that, had I not recently glutted myself on crime fiction, would perhaps not bother me so much. But when you read a lot of noir, post-noir, and wanna-be-noir fiction, it's hard not to notice an obvious, problematic pattern among protagonists: namely, they are all male, they are loners living alone with no spouse or children, they drink to excess on a daily basis and--most mysterious of all--are frequently objects of sexual desire to attractive women. It's hard not to feel that the entire genre is at root a male wish-fulfillment fantasy, wherein perpetually inebriated man children spend their permanent bachelorhood wading through back alleys and subterranean pool halls in pursuit of the TRUTH, all while fending off the advances of hot women with varying degrees of success and nursing some elusive, oblique man pain.
It's almost as if this particular brand of crime novel is less concerned with the crime than with soothing the fears of aging men by giving them a hero just like them, but who can still pick up women and solve crime while drinking to intervention-levels of excess on a daily basis. Now that I write that, I wonder just why it is that I've been reading so many of these books lately. But anyway....
I raise this all because Quirke, the sardonic scamp occupying the lead role of this novel, checks all these boxes: lone wolf alcoholic, develops an unhealthy involvement in a case for no clear reason beyond a sense of righteousness and because of some passing resonance to an old personal tragedy that pains him to this day. Quirke is pretty textbook in this regard. And despite the competence with which Banville/Black render his character--or perhaps because Quirke is drawn so well--these stereotypical noir hero vices seem to limit his character in important ways. It was hard not to feel that a dogmatic adherence to the noir prototype kept Quirke confined to the purgatory of two dimensional protagonists throughout this novel, much to his--and the novel's--detriment.(less)
I picked up Throne of the Crescent Moon preparing to dive into an epic fantasy--a genre I enjoy in moderation--and found myself reading a sword &...moreI picked up Throne of the Crescent Moon preparing to dive into an epic fantasy--a genre I enjoy in moderation--and found myself reading a sword & sorcery novel, which is not so much my thing. Instead of a band of variously talented misfits moving through a vast landscape in pursuit of some high stakes macguffin, and with at least a moderately complex political backdrop, we get a band of variously skilled misfits hanging out in one city (mainly in one house) trying to puzzle out a high stakes magical threat to said city with the use of alchemy and swordplay (with a somewhat less complex political backdrop). It's more of a cozy mystery with urban fantasy highlights, with Adoulla--an edlerly ghul hunter--as the Holmes-like scholar who still has some fight left to him, and the two younger protagonists--Raseed, a Dervish, and Zamia, a human-lioness shape changer, both of whose ability to kick serious ass is never in doubt--as his muscle.
All of which was fine one I adjusted my expectations. I like cozy mysteries, I can deal with UF, and it's a decent story with a few nice page-turning moments of tension. The sorcery aspects felt kind of hokey to me, but I'm not a big S&S fan, and I didn't miss much by skimming those sections.
But there were a few things that consistently frustrated me: the author over-telegraphs the emotions of each character, and, in particular, the attraction between Raseed & Zamia. From the page that the two first meet the author goes out of his way to remind the reader that these two are both really into each other and going out of their way to repress their attraction.
There was also a lot of implausible speechifying throughout, particularly in moments of tense action. (Mini spoiler alert right here-->) If you're about to bust down the Khalif's door and lop his head off even as the palace swarms with his guards, are you really going to stop and argue with someone over the morality of what you're about to do, or do you think you would have that sorted out by that point? There were several moments, particularly in the climactic battle near the end, where I wanted to shout "Shut the fuck up and fight you idiot!" to one or two of the characters who, the author thought, might want to debate one of his colleagues on the finer points of the business before before getting busy with the swords.
Finally, and probably least important, goes back to my expectation of reading an epic fantasy. Most books one finds in the fantasy section of the bookstore these days come standard issue with a "map of the kingdom" in the very beginning. I love maps, and even though it is about as tired a cliche as most everything else in epic fantasy, I enjoy looking at the maps, even for books I have no intention of reading. But as a reader, when I encounter such a map before even reading word one of the first chapter, I file away the names of the cities, mountains, lakes, rivers, lands, etc. on the map in the expectation that, at some point during the novel, the characters will find themselves moving through some of these places. But, as with N.K. Jemisin' The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (85% of which took place within the walls of one palace in just one kingdom) most of the action of this novel occurs within one city, and nearly half of it occurs within one neighborhood (within one house, almost) of that city. So why a map of the kingdom? This book sports a particularly pretty one. But wouldn't a map of the city of Dhamsawaat have been more appropriate? Or of the Khalif's palace? As I said, a small kvetch, but as a lover of fantasy maps, I do feel slightly cheated.
Still, the end had a nice emotional payoff which more or less made up for what I felt to be the hamfistedness of some of the character writing. I think I'll pick up the next volume of this series.(less)
Simenon's Inspector Maigret reads to me like a character with one foot on the crisp, well-lighted terra firma of Holmes and Auguste Dupin and the othe...moreSimenon's Inspector Maigret reads to me like a character with one foot on the crisp, well-lighted terra firma of Holmes and Auguste Dupin and the other foot in the foggy hardboiled netherworld of Philip Marlow and Sam Spade. This novel is one of over seventy Inspector Maigret mysteries that Simenon penned over his hyper-prolfiic career. It is a fairly conventional story, hewing closely to the beats of the traditional sleuth story (a murder occurs, the sleuth gathers information, some of it contradictory and strange, all the while leaving the reader in the dark until the ultimate scene when the inspector lights his pipe and explains away the mystery step by step, pacing the floor like a math professor).
The window dressing, however, has a distinct pre-noir flavor--Maigret does his work in the coffee shops of Paris, smoking and drinking with all manner of strange characters from all walks of life; he wanders the foggy streets around the Seine and encounters more than a few hard luck cases. Such moments provided the most interesting reading in this novel, particularly since I don't much go in for the traditional puzzle-master sleuth stories, and the quality of the puzzle in this novel was a tad underwhelming anyway.(less)
Robert Ashley's primary gig is as an opera composer. Not operas like you would see at the Met, like Turandot or Don Giovanni. Ashley's operas consist...moreRobert Ashley's primary gig is as an opera composer. Not operas like you would see at the Met, like Turandot or Don Giovanni. Ashley's operas consist mainly of rambling monologues, mostly intoned by Ashley himself with his dry Michigan accent, over atmospheric music. It might sound ridiculous but it actually works very well. His most famous opera, Perfect Lives, is the story of a very avante garde bank heist, but the text is only peripherally related to the story. Instead, it's as if Ashley taps into some subterranean river of words that courses somewhere deep in the unconscious mind and siphons up thoughts and associations and insights that only see the conscious light of day when we're on the verge of sleep. It's not that the story isn't important, it's more like the text exists under the story, and we're following the story from inside the characters' unconscious minds. It's part poetry, part theater, and part spiritual tract.
Quicksand is Ashley's attempt at a straightforward novel. An obsessive fan of mystery novels, he decided to make his first novel a mystery. What he ended up with is more of a cool-headed political thriller that, despite having the rough contours of a thriller, has none of the conventional tension of the genre. The unnamed protagonist, who bears a strong resemblance to Ashley, is a secret agent for the US government, and during an overseas assignment, in an unnamed nation resembling Burma, he gets sucked into a coup plot. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that the coup goes down without a hitch, and the protagonist at the end of the novel is barely any different than he was at the beginning. He encounters no serious obstacles along the way. There really is no drama to the plot.
This seems to be entirely intentional. In his forward to the novel, Ashley has this to say about "plot":
A few critics have remarked that my operas have no plot. That’s not entirely true, but I wasn’t surprised. Many contemporary operas have no plot, because our idea of what a plot means has changed a lot since the Italian composers of the nineteenth century used plot to express political ideas. So, the no-plot criticism is valid—though perhaps not particularly important. Almost all of my operas were composed without any thought of the need for a linear plot.
Contemporary opera—my work in particular, but, that of a lot of other composers, too—is usually a gathering of characters with stories to tell. The why-the-characters-are-together has replaced the notion of plot.
Instead of plot, voice is the main attraction. I'm pretty sure that a good deal of my enjoyment of this novel came from hearing Ashley's voice in my head as I was reading it. His voice is airy, very high in the throat and somewhat scratchy, very laid back. Here's a link to the iconic opening scene of Perfect Lives, which will give you a taste of Ashley's style: