WHEN John Banville started writing his Benjamin Black novels five years ago, there were some who thought he was slumming it with his whodunits set in 1950s Dublin.
By Benjamin Black
Mantle, 326pp, £16.99
Yet the Black books have been lovely and luminous, and to make his situation even more complicated, he has now, at the behest of the Raymond Chandler estate, signed on for a third persona: that of the guy who will reanimate Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. On the evidence of this alluring but not terribly surprising novel, Banville risks stretching himself a bit thin.
To be sure, the Black books (this is the sixth) remain enticing, sultry pleasures. Their hero, the dour pathologist known only as Quirke, sticks to his favoured style, dark and gloomy: when a funeral occurs in Vengeance, it is noted that Quirke must be the only attendee who doesn’t need to dress differently for the occasion. And when a wicked new woman appears in any of these books, she is apt to be ravishing, bored and cruel, all of which guarantee her a Quirke tryst.
“You are a big fellow, aren’t you,” remarks the slinkiest broad in Vengeance, after she and the glum guy have their expected hookup. “All muscle and fur.”
Vengeance once again leads Quirke into his favourite kind of trouble: “yet another morass of human cupidity and deceit,” involving the deaths of powerful men and the foxy insolence of their glamorous widows. It breaks no new ground.
But why should Benjamin Black tamper with a winning formula? The crimes aren’t graphic or even terribly central. And the detecting questions don’t count for much. The books are far more notable for malaise, atmospherics, sexual chemistry and vast amounts of swirling tobacco smoke and mind-muddling alcohol.
Like the other Quirke books, Vengeance conjures Dublin at a time when Elvis Presley is the hot new guy on the radio. But it begins in Slievemore, at a big stone pile that is the shared summer resort of the Delahaye and Clancy families. These two clans have been united for generations in an import-export business that has been run primarily by Victor Delahaye. Benjamin Black names characters very deliberately, so that Victor is the dominant partner. The pesky newspaper reporter in these books is called Jimmy Minor.
The secondary partner is Jack Clancy, but it is not Jack who figures in the book’s typically elegant opening. Victor invites Davy Clancy, Jack’s son, to go sailing with him. Davy doesn’t like the water to begin with. He likes it even less when Victor starts reminding him of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. And then Davy finds himself suddenly afraid of more than just the sea.
Apparently Victor told Davy a cruel story about father-son loyalty – and then shot himself, with Davy as the only witness. Victor’s corpse is sent to Dublin, where Quirke becomes the case pathologist. Since some things never change in these books, Quirke is first found in a bar at midday, more or less in his natural element. But he knows his way around moguls and wastrels, so he is recruited to grill the gentrified suspects.
Benjamin Black makes pointed asides about the dullness of Agatha Christie, and about the patness of mystery stories that resolve their loose ends too tidily. Yet this time he too works in a predictable mode. Though Vengeance sprawls from the Irish coast to Dublin, it is essentially a closed-house mystery in which members of the Clancy and Delahaye families are the main and only players. A census of just who these grudge-holding, resentful, unhappily married people are would immediately raise suspicions that turn out to be accurate.
These books are best read for their striations of class, power and faith; for their pervasive sense of the sinister; and for Benjamin Black’s fine way of expressing all of that. One character has “satanic good looks”. One is dangerously dotty. One is so English, despite many years in Ireland, that Benjamin Black calls her “tall, straight, stately as a heron, with her hoity-toity accent and her shield of impenetrable politeness”.
Most showily, an old man inhabits his “cistern like space with the indolent furtiveness of an elongated, big-eyed, emaciated carp”. And he’s not even the bad guy.
It says something about the casual menace of this series that its cavalier characters are especially memorable. One woman views the world “with indifference, or at best a sort of vacant amusement”.
And the Delahaye sons, dressed in white down to their plimsolls, are redolent of “sun-warmed grass and willow bats and scattered applause drifting across a trimmed, flat sward.”
Not every gumshoe gets to trample such rarefied terrain.
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