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 NEWSWEEK’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 E. 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 out
side 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. If I have one voice, it’s Westlake’s.
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 major
ity 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. So there is this thing that we’re missing out on: “There’s all
this violence, all this blood and horror and so on. It must be quite fun. But I don’t see any.”
So they get it from books. And I notice this trend of thrillers that are absolutely dripping
with blood, serial killers slicing people up.
NEWSWEEK: Conversely, what’s good about “Ask the Parrot” [the most recent Parker novel] and “Christine Falls” is that they are, for lack of a better phrase, human scale. Parker is a pro, but he never does anything that anyone couldn’t or wouldn’t do if they were in his line of work.
Banville: That’s exactly the point. I mean, my poor pathologist doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time. A pathologist friend of mine gave me a little bit of advice about him beforehand, and when he’d read the book I said, “What did you think?” He said, “You didn’t take any of my advice. You got it all wrong.” I said, “Oh, well, who cares?” But that is increasingly the case, the ultraprofessionalism of the leading characters. They have to know everything about everything.
It’s a funny business. I have to confess, there’s something quite touching about readers. They want something from you that you know you can’t give. But they want the priest in you. They think you know more than they do. I have a friend whose life is in constant turmoil. She’ll call me up and ask, “What am I going to do about this love affair?” or, “What about my daughter’s
education?” And I say, “I don’t know,” and she’ll say, “But you write novels, you must know
about these things.” I say, “Look, I can write about it, but I don’t know about it.” And she
cannot understand that! I tell her, “We concentrate on something deeply enough to make it
lifelike, but it’s all to do with the concentration and the imagination, it’s nothing to do with experience. I sit in my room all day long doing this thing. I haven’t lived half as much as you have.”
NEWSWEEK: [To Westlake] Do you ever sit there worrying, is there a point beyond which I will lose the reader’s tolerance for such a coldblooded protagonist?
Westlake: Every once in a while I’ll ask my wife, is this too far? Usually it’s all right. But no, when I’m doing it, I’m doing it for myself. The whole last part of “Comeback” was this struggle between Parker and this other guy in an abandoned, empty house. And finally it’s all over with and Parker goes to the other people who’re going to drive him away and he gets into the back
seat, and the driver says, “ ‘Did you see George?’ ‘Yes,’ Parker said.” And that’s the end of the
book. The whole 75 pages of the struggle is summed up in “ ‘Yes,’ Parker said.” I was pleased with that. I don’t care who else is reading it. I thought, yeah! OK!
Banville: Do you have any criminal “experience”? I mean, you don’t know crooks, you don’t know gangsters?
Westlake: Minimally. And not for a long time.
Banville: In my book, there’s no criminal world. Just these people who’ve got themselves into a bit of trouble. No one’s actually a criminal per se. There’s no professionalism.
Westlake: No, but there is the weight of that Catholic hierarchy ultimately. And we haven’t
asked this question yet: the choice of this particular period—Ireland in the ’50s?
Banville: It’s a perfect period for noir fiction—all that fog, all that cigarette smoke, women wearing nylons. Remember nylons?
Westlake: I certainly remember the cigarettes.
Banville: I was wondering if it’d get published here with all the cigarettes.
Westlake: And without a warning label.
Banville: And it was such a hidebound time. So there was a sense that we must absolutely hold fast to the rules. We must obey the church, obey figures of authority. That was what was so useful for this kind of plot, that it all depends on people being able to keep secrets with great ease, and have that great arrogance—which lasted in Ireland up till the early ’90s—that says to the people, we don’t need to tell you things. You’re better off not knowing. We know, we’re in control, we’re the wise people, the great men. I needed that for the atmosphere of the book. That and the cigarettes.