BENJAMIN BLACK has come in from the cold. Benjamin who? He looks familiar, uncommonly like John Banville, the Irishman whose bejewelled prose won him the Man Booker Prize last year. But Black's debut novel, published this week, is a noirish thriller, so utterly different in style as to make the comparison ridiculous. All except for one thing: it's true - they both are written by the same man.
Banville is relishing his new-found double identity. It suits him. He even looks more bucolic, more en fte as Black than as Banville. Maybe, I suggest, that's who he really is, and this enigmatic, gnomic, Jesuitic, Booker Prize-winning Banville chap keeps getting in the way. He laughs at the preposterousness of the idea. "Yeah," he says, relaxing in the Dublin office he's latterly shared with his alter-ego, "start the rumour."
He wrote Christine Falls, a gripping, beautifully crafted thriller as Ben Black for one simple reason, he says. "I simply wanted to send a signal to my readers, that it was a different kind of book, taking off in a wholly different direction."
It's a one-sitting read, an all-night enticement, telling the story of the abduction of a baby to America from Ireland, under the auspices of the 1950s Irish Catholic Church. The intrigues surrounding the baby's fate on both sides of the ocean form the plot. Its themes blend unrequited love, family loyalty and deceit. Its pathologist-sleuth, known only as Quirke, is a shambling, likeable, messed-up presence. He's given to drink, widowed and childless, and dragged up by a judge from a childhood of poverty into an adulthood full of moral and social imperatives. Blunt, yet sharp in its descriptiveness, in its evocation of Dublin during the grizzly 1950s, Christine Falls is littered with corpses and hypocrisies.
Puns aside, it marks a sea-change from Banville's Booker winner The Sea. If you'd bet a year ago on Christine Falls's ostensible existence, even in prospect, Joe Coral would likely have offered you odds of a million to one. Banville explains that it's all Georges Simenon's fault.
"Yes, Simenon started me off," he says. "I'd not read him before - the 'hard' books, as he called them, not his pot-boilers. They are wonderful. Absolute masterpieces, better than Sartre or Camus. A very simple declarative style with no big words. And they tell a story. I wanted to try it. I had written a television script, which, alas, was going nowhere. It was my starter. I turned it into Christine Falls."
Buoyed by signals of success, he's already working on a Quirke follow-up, which he says is "going quickly and very well". He adds: "Strangely enough, after all these years, I am writing novels. I've never quite thought of my other books as being novels. I only call them that for convenience. They don't possess the same kind of interest in terms of character or plot. And so now, suddenly, on the brink of my old age (he has just turned 60), I am writing these novels, 'making it up out of my head'."
Is Christine Falls the kind of book that he would want to read? "Interesting question. I think there's a side of me that is definitely the 'Benjamin Black' side. I've always read thrillers. And now that I'm playing in that field, there is a part of me that likes being there. But I don't know which part that is. The odd thing is this, when now I talk about doing books by Benjamin Black and books by John Banville, in a curious way - which I can't explain - I feel more estranged from John Banville. And, after all these years [as John Banville], that seems odd."
Odder still might seem the prospect of a Booker Prize win for Black? "Christine Falls could not be listed for the Booker," he says. "Not this year. It came out too late. But I have every intention that Benjamin Black will - either next year or the following year - definitely win the Booker Prize." Then he adds: "I'll let Banville have the Nobel."
I remind him of last year's Booker hoo-ha when, accepting the prize, he remarked that it was "good to see a work of art being recognised". "I meant it," he says. "Yes, of course I was being mischievous, poking my finger in the eye of the London book reviewers. But yes, I think it's a good thing that once in a while a book like The Sea should win the prize."
The icy atmosphere that greeted Banville's win signalled the London literati's belated revenge for Banville's savaging of Ian McEwan's Saturday (long listed for the Booker) in the New York Review of Books.
"Gosh, I'm sorry I ever wrote that review. I didn't know it was going to cause a furore. I was in Italy when the book arrived. It had taken FedEx a month to get it to me. By then it was hailed as some kind of great book. But then, when I read it, I thought, 'This is awful. And I've got to come out and say so.' I didn't enjoy doing that to McEwan. I know the sweat and labour that goes into producing a book, so it gives me no pleasure."
The upshot was palpable: Banville made enemies. "All those people who'd gone into ecstasies were furious that I was saying: 'Look, you're either a fool or a liar.' I didn't realise that, of course, when I was writing the review. I know I should have."
Hindsight is wonderful. Looking back, did the win itself make the slightest difference to his career? "Well, my bank manager no longer seems to wake up screaming in the night, having nightmares about my overdraft," he laughs. "And it actually does fantastic business for the book." Banville has recently embarked on a publicity round, beginning in Barcelona, then on to Germany where The Sea is hitting the bookshops.
"Peter Carey once said a Booker win is like being in a car crash. First, it happens. Then you're stunned. But suddenly everything starts to happen: you have to fill forms out, phone the insurers, go to court; it's all just beginning, the repercussions, and it's odd to be doing this second round of publicity."
He sounds eager? Can this be promo? Surely not. It is impossible to picture Banville - a famously private man - actually relishing self-publicity. "Well, I tell you what I've done," he says in a whisper. "I've developed a persona behind which I hide. I strap it on and stride into the world. I've developed a patter."
How then does private Banville relax when he escapes the ballyhoo? I remember long ago, as a Dylan fan, (before the volte-face treachery of Dylan going electric), Banville strummed the guitar. That little I know. "I've recently filled out my form for Who's Who," he says. "And under recreations I entered 'work'." This isn't a jest. "Noel Coward once said that 'work is more fun than fun' and I agree with him. That's what I do." So will he be writing until the pen slides from his grasp? (He writes crouched over, ink bottle - black ink of course - stationed by his elbow, gripping a fountain pen, making his mark). "Oh yes, I hope so. And as I am drawing that final breath I'll be describing what it feels like. Richard Strauss as he lay on his deathbed said: 'It's exactly as I described it in Death and Transfiguration." Banville chortles.
Well, now that he and Black are a team, I suggest they have doubled their chances of storming into heaven when the time comes.
Black smiles back at my facile remark, buoyed by the notion. Banville, predictably, seems more circumspect - this is the man who has written a book about Mephistophiles, after all, in Mefisto. "You mean," he counters, "twice the chance of going to hell."
• Christine Falls by Benjamin Black is published by Picador, priced 12.99.