Lives of Crime; Novelists John Banville and Donald Westlake Compare Notes on the Seedy Worlds That Inspire Their Fiction

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

Centuries from now, when archeologists sift the rubble to understand our culture, they will be fortunate indeed to uncover the works of Donald E. Westlake. His 45 witty crime novels are as reliable a guide to the foibles and mores of our society as you could hope to find (the 46th, "What's So Funny?," appears April 24). Those archeologists may get a little shiver, however, should they also unearth the works of Westlake's alter ego, Richard Stark, whose dark accounts of Parker, a coldblooded and occasionally homicidal thief, provide another, no less persuasive gloss on the world we so uneasily inhabit. Put another way, Westlake is, as the esteemed Irish novelist John Banville puts it, one of the "great writers of the 20th century."

Now Banville, whose novel "The Sea" won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, has turned his own hand to crime writing, and also under a pen name: Benjamin Black. His first attempt, the superbly noirish "Christine Falls," chronicles a fumbling Dublin pathologist's discovery of a baby-smuggling plot involving the Roman Catholic Church. Passing through New York City on a book tour last month, Banville met Westlake for the first time. At news-week's urging, they spent an afternoon talking in Westlake's Manhattan apartment. They got along so well that they were off and running before we could turn on the tape recorder.

Donald Westlake: There are all sorts of reasons to write under a pen name. But it seems to me that one of the things it did for you, John, when you said, "Benjamin Black is me but it's not really me, because I'm doing this other thing," is that it freed you in some ways--that both the sadness and anger that you would tend to bounce off as John Banville, you're confronting more directly as Benjamin Black.

John Banville: Oh, yeah, it was an extraordinary experience for me in what Gore Vidal so wonderfully called "the springtime of my senescence." To find a new direction to go in was liberating. I'm kind of playing with this, and I don't quite trust it yet. It may be a terrible mistake.

Westlake: It's the beginning of a series?

Banville: Yes, I'm almost finished with the second one.

Westlake: Same characters?

Banville: Yes, about two years on. Various people have died, various things have happened. For instance, in this second book, [the pathologist] Quirke's daughter, Phoebe, has become very interesting indeed. Because of her terrible experiences in the first book, she's damaged, but she interests me quite a lot. This has never happened to me before, where characters suddenly became interesting. Because characters the way John Banville writes, they're marionettes that I move around. They do what I tell them and they don't have autonomy outside me. I suppose what I'm doing quite late in my so-called career is getting back to storytelling. And there is a deep-seated desire in human beings for story. Always has been, always will be.

Westlake: Yeah. Tell me a story.

Banville: How do you feel about being Stark and Westlake? Do you see a separation, or is it just two names?

Westlake: The separation's in the language. I don't want to overstate it, but I bring out a different vocabulary. I'll be going along, and I'll think, wait a minute, Stark wouldn't say that. That's a little flowery. Because the Stark books are a little more of a construct.

Banville: Westlake is more playful.

Westlake: Yeah! It's like they say in all the dictatorships: freedom comes from discipline.

NEWSWEEK: In the past few years the fiction best-seller lists have become monopolized by novels about crime and murder. What do you make of that?

Banville: I have a slight theory: I think we live in a very violent time, OK? The vast majority of people have never seen any violence in their lives at all. They might drive their car into their neighbor's car and their neighbor might shout at them, but that's about as near as they get to violence. …