Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: Crime: A Death In Summer by Benjamin Black

Mantle, €14.99

In just six years John Banville has produced two extraordinary novels, one of which, The Sea, won the Man Booker prize in 2005. The wonderfully playful and rewarding The Infinities followed in 2009 and, as if that was not enough, in the interval Banville -- writing as Benjamin Black -- also produced four elegant thrillers. Three of those featured the Dublin pathologist Quirke as he encountered the seamier sides of Irish life in the fifties of the last century.

And now, a mere seven months on from the last one, Quirke is back in another thriller. This one opens with the apparent suicide of Richard Jewell -- known to his detractors as Diamond Dick -- proprietor of the highly successful newspaper group that includes the feared and scurrilous 'Daily Clarion' published out of Eden Quay in Dublin. The dead man is found by his yard manager in an office above the stables at Brooklands, Jewell's Kildare estate.

Oddly, the corpse is still clutching the top-of-the-range Purdey shotgun which has quite literally blown half his head off. Black presents the scene of the death in gruesome and richly satisfying detail.

Rich detail is what we have come to expect in Black's thrillers. This time out it is high summer in the sweltering city and indoors, in public, private and even intimate spaces, the fug of tobacco smoke is choking. Senior Service, Gold Flake, Gauloises and, significantly, Lucky Strikes all feature in the narrative.

Bogart would feel at home in these killing parishes. Small wonder then that the endowment of a pulmonary clinic in the hospital where Quirke heads the pathology department is one of the late Jewell's philanthropic gestures.

If Jewell's death was not suicide then it has to have been a murder and, as is typical in this genre, there is no shortage of suspects with credible motives. Maguire, the yard manager, had the time and the access to the victim, and besides, he has already done a stretch for manslaughter.

There is the beautiful, French-born, grieving widow who will inherit everything and with whom Quirke becomes emotionally entangled. There is a step-sister who is both more and less than she seems. And then there are business rivals, one of whom has been secretively amassing shares in Jewell's newspaper group.

In the deep shadows there are the Friends of St Christopher's, a group of concerned Catholics that supports an orphanage on the coast north of Dublin.

A classic thriller? Not this time. This one is a bit too formulaic for its own good. Quirke's pathology skills are not called on in any way, he has been reduced to mere sleuth.

The sharp beating he attracted in the first of the series is now visited upon his assistant and, in the context of the plot, is now wholly gratuitous rather than properly sinister. The angst and anguish that were the hallmarks of Quirke's behaviour and relationships have now become habitual tics, devoid of meaning.

Even Garda Inspector Hackett is more plodding policeman than sharp rozzer. The trouble is with the plot. Too many herrings, too many coincidences and forcings, too much creaking.

Neither Banville nor Black is capable of writing an unengaging sentence and there is much to admire and enjoy here.

The book, however, is a victory of style, even though gorgeous, over substance.

The magician has waved his wand, tapped on the upturned hat, whisked the silk scarf aside and presto! the shivering rabbit is still there fouling the topper.

The earlier Quirke thrillers gained their suggestive power to command our attention by opening up unnatural acts and unspeakable practices in many areas of public and private life for our delectation.

Human trafficking, institutional abuse, political corruption, Christ and Caesar hand in glove -- these were the territories patrolled by Quirke and Hackett.

They have not moved beyond them yet but, deep down, it is hard to imagine that the world is not a better place with a reduction in the number of newspaper proprietors and other predatory capitalists.

Not so much a death in summer then, more of a lapse in late spring.

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