Almost impossibly, Ghosts is the sequel to The Book of Evidence. As if there ever could be a sequel. And yet, there is.

Ghosts, by John BanvilleAnd what an enigmatic and otherworldly sequel it is. We enter a world where we see every single tree clearly while feeling we have no idea about the layout and structure of the forest. A cleverly constructed world of appearances and transformations, with changes and shifts and strange occurrences. What is told is actually just a story about a day. No ordinary day, and no ordinary people, of course. But still, just a day, and an outing, so to speak.

“The book opens with a shipwreck on an island where there is a strange singing in the air. As the stranded castaways make their way toward the refuge of the island’s reclusive savant, it begins to look as though we might be in for a version of The Tempest, reflecting those aspects of the play expressed by the title of the Singspiel that Mozart was planning at the time of his death, Die Geisterinsel.” – Michael Dibdin, The Indepedent

What ensues is a meeting with an odd medley of castaways from a day outing who have washed ashore a remote island. They are led by Felix, the “lord of the streets.” And they are of the strange types that populated The Book of Evidence and Mephisto – Faustian, otherworldly, ideal typical, perhaps even godlike. It is perhaps the strangest or oddest cast of characters ever.

We meet an art expert with exceedingly dubious credentials, Professor Kreutnaer, along with his lovelorn assistant Licht. Additionally, we have an ex-convict, quite familiar to us now, the newly released Freddie Montgomery, as the first-person narrator. And having assembled the cast, Banville allows the hilarious narrator to take off and deliver a mass of observations in a stream-of-consciousness-like manner.

Oh. And did I mention that the island is haunted? Of course it is, for this is John Banville at his playful best! Ghosts is witty, odd, sarcastic, wild, and very curiously constructed. The second installment of John Banville’s Freddie Montgomery trilogy is a marvel. But it is a book that doesn’t make all that much sense unless The Book of Evidence has already been read – so do not start with this one. But when you have, quickly move on to this stylistic novel and read it. Then reread it. For Ghosts is John Banville at his surrealistic and stylistic best, and this is a book that require several readings to fully reveal itself!

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John Banville in Guardian (1.15.2011): Franz Kafka’s other trial

John Banville in Guardian (11.28.2009): My hero: Ben the labrador

The Independent (11.5.2010): One Minute With: John Banville, novelist

Guardian (7.22.2008): John Banville

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Among the crime novels by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) that have been published so far, Christine Falls is my personal favorite. It is as much fiction and literature as it is crime fiction – very lyrical, slow paced, with Christine Falls, by Benjamin Blacka number of  wonderful conversations, remarkable observations and outstanding story telling. The novel is set in 1950s Dublin and Boston – a Dublin that is masterfully described in bits and pieces with a dank and fog-draped atmosphere that pervades everything, a city that oozes existential dread and breeds melancholy. The descriptions are masterful and amazing.

We follow Quirke, the complex, melancholic and conflicted coroner in 1950’s Ireland. His background, it turns out, is somewhat special. As a child, he was rescued from a Catholic orphanage by Judge Griffin and raised alongside his own biological son, Mal. However, over time the two sons have started to resent one another and the distance between them has grown.

Mal is involved in a cover-up of the death of a girl named Christine Falls. The cover-up is detected, by coincidence, by Quirke. Doing an autopsy, Quirke finds that Christine Falls did not die of pulmonary embolism, as Mal wrote in his report. What is Quirke to do with what he believes is the truth about the Christine Falls case? And – should he pursue the case and learn more, or let it rest? It seems Quirke has less of a choice than he initially thought – whether he can let the case go or not is not the question – the case, he feels, will not let him go. And thus, once more Quirke becomes an accidental detective.

Benjamin Black masterfully lets the tension build, and allows the details to play out, knowing very well that the anticipation of violence often is more frightening than the action itself. Or, as chess grandmaster Nimzowitch stated it: The threat is often more effective than its execution. And, indeed, there is relatively little violence in the novel itself – even though it is present as a distinct possibility in most of the book. Christine Falls is superbly composed, almost like a grand-master game of chess!

The plot itself is somewhat convoluted. The big, overall plot involves some corruption, some conspiracy and the Catholic Church, and isn’t all that plausible. Yet, it’s not less probable in any way than most plots in crime fiction books. However, the details of the plot concerns misplaced love, jealousy, abortions, unwanted children, failed ambitions and similar problems – which are all very plausible in the context provided by Benjamin Black, and all are elegantly described and exploited. And the plot twists and turns, as it should. Additionally, irrespective of the quality of the plot, the writing and use of effects are so great in this book that the plot does not really occupy the driver’s seat, at least not for me. Rather, I was fascinated by the psychological insights in this book as well as by the writing.

Christine Falls is a truly fascinating read! An excellent, real vintage Benjamin Black!

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The Lemur is a short, slim new novel from John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. While his Christine Falls and The Silver Swan were both set in Dublin in the 1950s, this is instead a tale set in modern day New York.

The main character of The Lemur is John Glass. He is a famous investigative journalist who has grown soft through his marriage into money. Now he has settled down to write the biography of his father in law for a fee of one million dollars. The Lemur, by Benjamin Black In this dark and mysterious tale Glass meets with and hires a man he deems the Lemur to do research for the book for him. And The Lemur, a young geek seemingly with access to mountains of information, has extensive knowledge of his father in law.

His father in law is William ‘Big Bill’ Mulholland, an Irish-American. He is a CIA operative turned communications mogul. And Big Bill has his secrets and expects Glass to keep them. Now Mulholland lives the good life. He has set up a charitable trust – run by Glass’s wife Louise, who is also a UN Special Ambassador for Culture – and thinks the story of his life should be told. “Not a hagiography–I don’t merit one, I’m no saint,” he insists. “What I want is the truth.”

Only a few days into his assignment, The Lemur calls Glass to pressure him for money. He knows something and he wants half a million dollars for it. Then later The Lemur is found dead, having been shot through his left eye. The last person he called before being shot was John Glass. ‘That makes you the last one to talk to him alive,’ says Captain Ambrose from the NYPD. And, when Glass replies, ‘You mean, the second last’, Captain Ambrose grins. ‘Yeah. Right.’

However, Glass has a cast-iron alibi. But who killed The Lemur? What was the secret? John Glass turns detective, fearing that his own affair with a young artist may be the damaging secret. With little information, John assembles what facts he can, guilt eventually pointing back to himself and his extended family: wife, Louise; step-son, David; and father-in-law, Big Bill Mulholland.

I greatly enjoyed Black’s other novels (Christine Falls, The Silver Swan). I did not like this one nearly as much. I did not find the characters even remotely likeable. Overall, it is not nearly as gripping, fresh and original as the two previous books featuring Quirke. For me the pages of The Lemur turned fast, but I am a great fan of John Banville and Benjamin Black. So, if like me, you are a fan of John Banville, you should read The Lemur.

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John Banville and Colum McCann at the 92nd Street Y – video

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The Gods are here: The Infinities, by John Banville

The gods play a key role in this novel. John Banville lets them loose on a family somewhere in the countryside preparing to lose the patriarch of the household. They are, however, pretty mundane gods – gods engaged in relatively trivial pursuits. Maybe its a slow season for them and they are bored? Or maybe […]

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Mefisto, by John Banville

The story of Faustus has attracted much literary attention. It is one of the most durable myths in Western culture: The man who makes a deal with the Devil that he can never be happy and never satisfied, and that if he is, the Devil can take him. Goethe, as we know, renamed him a […]

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The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

This is the second book John Banville wrote using Benjamin Black as penname. John Banville has described it as “liberating” to write under this name, and has said that he writes much easier and faster as Benjamin Black. Even his writing style is different – he doesn’t pay the same attention to every word in […]

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