Tuesday, September 24, 2013

(No.248) Pseudonymous novels by John Banville & J.K.Rowling


"Pseudonymous novels by John Banville and J.K. Rowling --

and some other recent novels"

by Alastair Rickard 



Mark Twain said that "every time I read "Pride And Prejudice" I want to dig Jane Austen up and beat her over the skull with her shin-bone".

As Twain's comment illustrates, the source of great pleasure or dislike from reading is a highly individual thing, often both unpredictable and idiosnycratic.

Many of us who like reading fiction have favourite novelists whose books we so enjoy that we don't just anticipate them with pleasure we await them eagerly. In various RickardsRead columns several of the writers whose work I most enjoy have been included. Recently I enjoyed reading the latest novels of several novelists who are among my favourites.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym adopted by Irish novelist John Banville, a writer of literary novels and a winner of the Booker Prize. Banville took this pen name not to cloak his identity but to establish a separate publishing personna for what turned out to be a series of 'crime' genre novels.

Set in Dublin in the 1950s the principal continuing character is a medical doctor named Quirke, a pathologist affiliated with a major hospital whose Dublin police detective friend involves him occasionally in murder cases. This sounds formulaic for a crime/detective novel. Banville's aren't.

The novels in ths Quirke series, of which there are now six, are not only beautifully written but inspired  as much by character as plot. Quirke is a complex man with many personal problems. The latest novel in the series "Holy Orders" (2013) is every bit as absorbing as its predecessors. They are rewarding reading whether one seeks the 'crime/mystery' genre or not.

My advice for those who take up reading this series of novels by Benjamin Black is to read them in the order of their publication to properly appreciate the challenges of Quirke's life. The novels proceed chronologically and contain references to previous stories.

The three novels immediately preceding "Holy Oders" are "Vengeance" (2012), "A Death in Summer" (2011) and "Elegy For April" (2010).

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Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of another established novelist but one who did use it in order to hide her identity: J.K. Rowling, the hugely successful English wrter of the Harry Potter series.

Rowling's first post-Potter novel, "The Casual Vacancy," was directed at an adult audience. My impression was that the critics, especially in the UK, were waiting to give her negative reviews -- and many did. I thought it was unfair and apparently she did too.

She decided to write her next novel for adults, "The Cuckoo's Call" published earlier this year, using a closely guarded secret pseudonym -- Robert Galbraith. An insider leaked the secret but not before the novel -- and Robert Galbraith -- received favourable reviews. It demonstrated that she got more even-handed reviews when critics thought it was a new writer they did not know.

And the novel, a private detective mystery set in today's London, is great reading. I could hardly put it down.

The central character named Cormoran Strike is a former British Army military policeman who lost half a leg serving in Aghanistan. He is the illegitimate son of an aging British rock star and a drug-addled groupie. As a private investigator he's barely hanging on financially and not at all in his relationship with his on again-off again female lover. And then a rich client with a long ago connection to Strike walks into his office.

The plot's twists are convincing as are the personal and professional complications of Strike's life. Rowling writing as Galbraith turns Strike into the sort of fascinating character ready made for a series like Banvllle (as Black) has written featuring Quirke. And I do hope she does.

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Several more of my recent enjoyable reads also deserve at least brief reference in this column.

Philip Kerr's latest Bernie Gunther novel is " A Man Without Breath" (2013). Gunther, the pre-WWII Berlin cop forced into the SS finds himself involved with the uncovering of the Katyn mass grave of thousands of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets. One of my favourite series of novels and principal characters.

Lee Child's series of Jack Reacher novels are addictive and can be consumed at the speed of junk food snacks. The plot of the latest, "Never Go back" (2013),  draws on Reacher's time as a U.S. Army major and MP to tell a story about how and why he is set up for accusations of past offences.

Carl Hiassen is a journalist who, despite having become a very successful novelist, still writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald. His novels set in Florida are mainly very effective dark humour tied to off-center plots. The latest, "Bad Monkey", again features former Miami cop Andrew Yancy. It has not yet become a true 'Yancy' series but it may become one.

"Dark Summer in Bordeaux" (2012) is the second volume in Scottish writer Alan Massie's Bordeaux trilogy.  The first volume was "Death In Bordeaux" (2010) and publication date for the third volume has not been announced.

The novels are set in the city of Bordeaux in south-western France just before and after its occupation by Germany in WWII. The central character is a French policeman, Supt. Lannes,  and his family members. Superior writing makes it as much or more a literary novel than one of the police detective genre. The novels really need to be read in order as they tell a continuous story.

"Devil's Cave" is the fifth in Martin Walker's crime/police detective novels set today in France's Perigord/Dordogne region. The series is not dark or gritty in the way that, say, Kerr's stories are. The novels revolve around small town chief of police Bruno Courreges. I suspect the stories appeal as much to those who like reading abut French food, cooking and rural culture as those who like mysteries. Pleasant but unchallenging reading.

"Water For Elephants" by Sara Gruen is a story tied largely to the people and activity in a struggling American circus in the 1930s as recalled by a man now in his 90s who was part of the circus for a time. Fascinating, well written, interesting with a truly inventive plot. The novel was first published in 2006 and is still available in soft cover.

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com 

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