Wednesday 20 September 2017

Review: Thriller: Vengeance by Benjamin Black

Mantle, £12.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

John Banville is back as Benjamin Black. His fifth thriller is set in 1950s Dublin and features Quirke, a consultant pathologist in the city morgue.

As with the previous books, this one is replete with all the period detail and atmospherics one could hope for in a thriller. From the pathologist's laboratory to the cut stone, depressing garda station on Pearse Street (largely unchanged even now), to numerous pubs and restaurants, including a chipper in Ringsend that serves greasy rissoles -- forerunner of the batter burger -- dear dirty Dumpling is on display.

The action starts, however, off the coast at Slievemore, where Victor Delahaye takes the son of his business partner out in a sailboat. The weather is bright and calm, the boy is a poor sailor and, after delivering an admonitory tale, the man shoots himself in the chest and dies messily.

The firm of Delahaye and Clancy had been set up in the Thirties as motoring became feasible and popular and has since diversified. The Delahaye side had the business acumen, while the Clancys did the donkey work. So it has been for two generations, but now things are changing.

Jack Clancy has been scheming in the background and is on the point of taking over. There are even suggestions that Jack has an inside track with Victor's young second wife Mona, stepmother to his handsome and sinister twin sons.

Warring families, spinster sisters, jealous husbands, betrayed wives, wicked step-mothers, identical twins -- these are the stuff of comedy and tragedy from Plautus onwards (and they were not original to him either).

The great "French polisher of Italian farce", aka Shakespeare, traded in similar plots. After wringing our hearts with his star-crossed lovers, he rewrote the play as A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is not the plot that counts, it is how it is presented.

Black is a master of presentation. The nudges and the winks, the red herrings and the wool-pullings are all consummately done.

Quirke, in his official capacity as pathologist, performs the post-mortem on the corpse of Delahaye and finds no reason to be suspicious.

But Inspector Hackett's diggings throw up a few scraps that intrigue him.

When Clancy's body is recovered from Dublin Bay, it looks like something is seriously amiss, particularly as the body has a bruise at the base of the skull resulting from a blow administered before death by drowning.

The gears of the plot mesh silently and inexorably and the whole machine moves forward to its disastrous outcome. On the way to its terminus, the book becomes more and more Banvillean and it is all the better for that.

At one point, a character quotes from a novel by Beckett written years earlier but not yet published in any language. There are other mordant and entertaining games played alongside the murder and mayhem.

But Black's and Quirke's Dublin remains the gritty and deplorable place it has always been and Vengeance is a memorable and compelling snapshot.

Gerry Dukes is a writer and critic. .................................................................................John Banville (and hat) will be appearing tomorrow night at a special event to raise funds for Omos, the charity which supports people affected by sexual abuse. The cultural evening of music, literature, poetry and stand-up will also feature Regina Nathan, Eleanor McEvoy, The Nualas and Sinead Moriarty among others. It will be held in the intimate surroundings of the Pepper Canister, Mount St Crescent, Dublin 2 (off Merrion Square), from 7pm. Tickets (€20 each) will be available on the door.

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