On June 9 gall bladder cancer robbed us of one of our greatest modern writers in Scottish author Iain Banks. He had just completed his final novel, The Quarry, but didn’t live to see it published mere weeks later. However, it’s a fitting end to an extraordinary career.
And that career was extraordinary not least because of his formidable output. From 1984 to 2013 he published 15 novels and 13 science-fiction novels (as Iain M Banks), a work rate of a full-length work every 12 months. All display his sharp ear for dialogue, his rich characterisations and his gloriously black sense of humour, but the sheer volume poses a challenge for the newcomer. Where should the Banks neophyte begin?
Leaving his sci-fi work aside (for the record, it’s also great: maybe start with Against a Dark Background or The Player of Games), here are my picks for the Three Must-Read Banks Novels.
1. The Wasp Factory (1984)
His debut work and one of his best: a dark and at times shockingly violent story told by disturbed 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, who's living on an isolated island with his father. It caused controversy at the time, but shows off some of the features that would become frequent themes in Banks’ later work – family secrets, unlikely narrators, geographical and emotional isolation, and naturally flowing dialogue. And the factory? That’s for you to discover.
2. The Crow Road (1992)
A coming-of-age story wrapped in a mystery as Prentice McHoan returns to his family’s small Scots village to unravel the mysterious disappearance of his uncle almost a decade prior. It’s arguably Banks’ masterpiece (and received an excellent four-part television adaptation by the BBC in 1996), while also showing off Banks’ rare and excellent talent for giving his characters spot-on music tastes (see also: Espedair Street). The moment where Prentice is listening to the Pixies while speeding along coastal Scottish roads? Perfect.
3. The Quarry (2013)
It’s impossible to separate the work from Banks’ death, not least because the main character is watching his father die of inoperable cancer, but it acts as a perfect culmination of his work – especially the above two books, thanks to the first-person narrative of the autistic 18-year-old Kit (echoes of the Wasp Factory) and a mystery surrounding a long-buried secret shared by a dysfunctional group of friends (shades of the Crow Road). It’s also got some of his most beautiful writing and, in some of the character’s monologues on science and atheism, the closest thing we’ll get to a Banks philosophical treatise.
And then? Espedair Street, Complicity, The Business.
Anything to avoid? The 9/11-themed Dead Air is kinda polemic, and his shot at a thriller, Canal Dreams –doesn’t quite work.
The Quarry is published through Little, Brown $29.99.