Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Benjamin Black's "A Death in Summer": Book Review

Detective Inspector Hackett early on finds to his disappointment not a murder but a seeming suicide, but then not one, "for the corpse was holding the gun in his own hands." The ensuing narrative shows, again, Quirke entangled in love, but a bitter, harsh, sulpheric sense of it never goes away. This novel ties together somewhat with themes of abandonment at an early age, first surfacing in "Christine Falls." While this story can be followed  independently, it's enhanced by familiarity with the motifs of betrayal, deceit, and institutional corruption in the book that introduced us all to Quirke.

I liked this as much as the other installments. It lacks the oddly enticing, if dreadfully faux-exotic whiff that enlivened dreary, postwar Dublin in "The Silver Swan" but it continues the relationships opened up in "Elegy for April" with daughter Phoebe and with Quirke's new lover. I'd missed pathologist assistant Sinclair in "Elegy," but in "A Death," he plays a major role. We find out about his past, and about his connections with yet another shadowy association of Ireland's leading figures in another conspiracy. This familiarity, as it recalls "Christine," slightly weakened the impact of similar revelations in "A Death." Still, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black satisfies with a solid story.

There was a bit less of the breathtaking prose that always can be found in this writer's fiction. Characters enter (many from past encounters with pathologist Quirke) and their reports, rendered as an indirect voice shifts in Joycean fashion subtly from consciousness to consciousness, move the story of three-hundred pages along neatly if somewhat schematically. The steady tone rarely departs from a detached, impassive viewpoint. Many characters do sound a bit too often similar, even a French one, a foreign entrant added as in earlier novels to show how the Irish respond or do not respond to outsiders. The situation of the Jewish residents of Ireland is part of the context here, if in passing more than deeply explored, but again, as with other novels, this deepens perspectives.

Responses of the characters convey welcome imagery. Sinclair recalls Phoebe who "looked like nothing much, with that stark little face and the hair clawed back from her face as if it were a punishment that had been imposed on her for an infringement of some religious rule." (49) The half-sister of that corpse Hackett finds is regarded by Sinclair as if with "the air of a debauched virgin."

And, no Banville or Black creation can come free of a gorgeous passage. I've reviewed most of Banville's fiction and the three earlier Black novels and for each I've cited a favorite snippet. So, Quirke "imagined them, hordes of enraptured lovers down the ages, millions upon millions of them, lashing at the poor old globe with the flails of their passion, keeping it awhirl on its wobbly axis like a spinning top. The love that people spoke of so much seemed a kind of miasmic cloud, a kind of ether teeming with bacilli, through which we moved as we moved through the ordinary air, immune to infection for most of the time but destined to succumb sooner or later, somewhere or other, struck down to writhe on our beds in tender torment." (183)

While I remained less convinced than Quirke of the charms issuing from object of his desire in this installment, that may be my cooler reaction as angled against his chastened one. As before, Quirke manages to unlock yet another grand scheme against the innocent and the defenseless. As his nemesis warns, stirring up the depths of the water can be fatal. "Remember," his foe threatens, "the little fish, and the big fish. And the mud at the bottom." (168)

Yeats' line about "the blood and mire of human veins" cited here contends against the vision of what Quirke glimpses as he falls in love: "Twin stars of light from some far window glowed in their straw-colored depths." (62) The pure contends against the profane. Quirke sums up his efforts to his police counterpart in investigation, Hackett: "We haven't grown up yet, on this tight little island. But we do what we can, you and I. That's all we can do." (307)

(As above, to PopMatters 6-23-11; Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 6-1-11)

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