Irish author John Banville has been lauded as one of the greatest literary stylists of his generation but his recent kick as a crime writer, churning out a murder mystery every year, has him giddy with excitement.
"I am in my 60s with a new lease on life. It's fun," Banville said in an interview to promote A Death in Summer, written under Banville's pen name Benjamin Black and published in the United States on Tuesday.
The book finds dour, bumbling pathologist Garret Quirke trying to get to the bottom of the apparent suicide of a Dublin newspaper owner. Banville tells readers, only partly in jest, to expect an "absolute masterpiece of crime fiction."
The story unfolds in 1950s Dublin, the time of Banville's childhood when he thought the Irish capital was an exotic place -- a setting he says he is still transported to in his mind every time he smells the whiff of diesel from a passing bus.
In his latest page-turner -- the fifth book written under the Black name in as many years - Quirke's assistant David Sinclair has an affair with his daughter Phoebe.
"There is a childish pleasure in it. It's like playing with toy soldiers," he said. "When I wake at four in the morning, instead of thinking about death, or sex, or my bank balance, I think, 'What will I do with Phoebe or Sinclair?'
"I am making up stories," Banville said. "This is the great pleasure of writing .... It's the making of yarns, which I was never interested in before."
Banville makes it sound like childish fun, but critics are smitten. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that "his Black persona has been such a success that he looks increasingly like the Superman to Mr. Banville's more literary Clark Kent."
LITERARY DOUBLE LIFE
Explaining the difference between Banville's finely crafted fiction such as The Book of Evidence or the Man Booker Prize-winner "The Sea" and his work as Black, Banville speaks in the third person and calls Banville an artist and Black a craftsman.
"Black was able to help Banville," he said over breakfast at the Knickerbocker Club on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, explaining that the Banville novel he just completed, "Ancient Light," was improved by his crime fiction.
"Black has got used to doing plots and keeping all that balanced, and Banville has learned some of that from him," he said.
In Ancient Light, he revisits his novels Eclipse and Shroud. Narrator Alexander Cleave thinks about the suicide of his daughter Cass and a sexual affair he had as a teenager with a friend's mother in a small Irish town.
As Banville, he said, he writes with a fountain pen at a pace of a few hundred words each day, while as Black, he churns out more than a thousand words daily on a computer.
As Black, Banville now has the unusual pleasure of outselling his own Banville books in some countries.
"This is partly why I started being Black -- to give Banville a day job," he said.
Banville said he is turned off by graphic depictions of violence both in crime novels and in Hollywood movies. He derides the hugely popular Stieg Larsson novels as crude stories "written with the blunt end of a burnt stick."
Black's leading man Quirke will soon be on television, thanks to a planned series by the BBC of three 90-minute mysteries. And, Banville said, he is planning more crime books until he can conjure some redemption for Quirke.
"If I get to a point, five, six, seven books from now ... where Quirke is in some way redeemed, then I will probably stop," he said.
Meanwhile, he will keep eking out his Banville books in the hope of writing what he is striving for -- the perfect novel.
"My books are better than anybody else's. They are just not good enough for me," he said. "What any writer is after is perfection, but that is not available.
"I will never achieve perfection, so I will keep on and on and on and I will die with a pen in my hand and I will feel as I am dying, 'Now, maybe, I will go to a place where I can write the perfect one,'" he said, adding, "Fat chance!"