Wednesday 23 August 2017

Black is back with stirring tale of death and intrigue

Fiction: Prague Nights, Benjamin Black, Viking, hardback, 328 pages, €16

Author John Banville aka Benjamin Black. Photo: Tony Gavin 7/6/2013
Author John Banville aka Benjamin Black. Photo: Tony Gavin 7/6/2013
Prague Nights
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Imperial Prague in 1599 is the shadowy setting as John Banville's crime-writing alter ego gets historical.

It's one of the more interesting  literary backstories of recent years: lauded novelist John Banville's  transmogrification into crime writer Benjamin Black. The quintessential 'man of letters' - too many sometimes, it could be argued - Banville's  right turn into genre has been rewarded with several bestselling mysteries and a  TV adaptation.

Prague Nights takes the pseudonymous concept a step further. We're not in the Quirke stories' mid-20th century; rather, it's historical fiction, albeit with a crime element. So this is Banville, writing as Black, who's steering a course for a new, second career - or third, if you count the Banville books.

Confused? Don't worry, the novel itself is far less befuddling. Prague Nights is clear and linear, its complex tale delivered crisply. It begins in late 1599 before tipping over into the new millennium. Christian Stern is a young man in a hurry and on a mission: to make something of himself. He travels from Germany to Prague - centre of the Holy Roman Empire - in search of fortune and glory.

On his first night, Stern discovers the murdered body of a young woman. He's ­arrested, imprisoned and roughly questioned by the weaselly High Steward Wenzel. Eventually, Wenzel's rival at the Imperial Court, Chancellor Lang, arranges our hero's release.

It transpires that the Emperor Rudolph had had a dream in which a "Christian star from the west" would see a rise in his fortunes. He believes young Stern is that star. Rudolph is a complete flake, a likeable amadán. He's more interested in art and science and necromancy and handsome young boys than his mistresses, his children or the tedious intrigues of court.

He has enough sense, though, to know that the king can lose his head if he doesn't keep his wits. So Christian is inveigled into Rudolph's service, as confidant, supporter, helpmate. And as the man to discover who killed the girl: Magdalena Kroll, another mistress of Rudolph and daughter of the influential courtier Dr Kroll.

Thus begins a nicely old-fashioned, almost traditional tale. Naturally, the initial murder is but the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg.

As Stern carefully navigates his way through the shadowy, often violent, world of royal politics - and more than one unwise affair - the story broadens out, both thematically and geographically. By the end, trans- continental power plays will be entwined with the more intimate realms of sexual jealousy, personal ambition and psychopathic tendencies.

Cleverly, and often amusingly, Black introduces several real characters to his fictional narrative. Rudolph, of course, was one, as was Lang; we also meet famous scientists like Brahe and Kepler (the latter previously the subject of a Banville novel), Irish-English occultist Edward Kelley and his poet step-daughter, Elizabeth Weston, and a thinly disguised version of the real-life mother of Rudolph's children.

As John Banville, the author is generally regarded as a supreme stylist whose plots and characters don't always match the quality of his coldly beautiful prose. From what I've read of Banville (and as an inveterate contrarian), the opposite seems to be the case.

I think he's a better storyteller than people say - The Blue Guitar, for instance, was brisk, funny and engaging - but not as great a 'writer' as is claimed. I don't particularly like the style: it's arch and ponderous and overly mannered, sometimes to the point of being almost desiccated or petrified.

I sometimes get the sense that all this luxurious, fine-tuned prose is serving the author - and not, as it should, the book.

(Admittedly, this is very much personal taste. I'd happily read excerpted paragraphs, even single sentences, by Don DeLillo, I love his writing that much.)

Prague Nights, thankfully, reads as though it could have been written by anyone. The prose doesn't have that Banville/Black laboriousness. It's colourful and atmospheric, certainly, at times rococo.

But the writing is also functional, in the best sense: it serves the book, not the other way around. This novel is more concerned with narrative and character than linguistic pyrotechnics, and is all the better for it.

The story, as mentioned, is complicated yet lucid. The threads are tied up smartly. People's motivations make sense. Things happen because they follow logically from what came before - not as common as you'd expect in a mystery.

The book reminded me most strongly of Anthony Burgess' last work, A Dead Man in Deptford. That, too, was a swirling kaleidoscope of intrigue, art, blood, sex and magic, set in Elizabethan times, featuring fictional and factual players.

Prague Nights isn't in the class of Burgess' brilliant valedictory (and comparing virtually anyone to Anthony Burgess is unfair). But it's a stirring, captivating and perfectly enjoyable read.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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