“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

ULYSSES: A Crime Novel, Innit?

It’s Bloomsday today, as you probably know, that one day in the year when everyone cheerfully admits to being unable to read ULYSSES, although they quite like DUBLINERS, and as for FINNEGANS WAKE, well, it’s mad, Ted, and if the man couldn’t be bothered punctuating his own titles, why should I waste my time reading it, etc.
  So happy Bloomsday, folks, and enjoy your grilled kidneys. For those of you interested in Chief Justice Adrian Hardiman’s take on why ULYSSES has a murder mystery at its heart, clickety-click here
  As always, my favourite bit about Bloomsday is the opportunity to run, yet again, Donald Clarke’s masterful short movie and a gloriously scatological slice of genius, aka ‘Pitch ‘n’ Putt with Beckett and Joyce’. Roll it there, Collette …
  Meanwhile, in crime fic-related news, this blog is yet again about three miles behind the curve. For lo! News reaches us via the darker reaches of the interweb that Ken Bruen has - oh yes! - another Jack Taylor tome on the way, with the blurb elves wibbling thusly:
Some people help the less fortunate. Others kill them. Welcome to HEADSTONE - Jack Taylor’s darkest nightmare. An elderly priest is viciously beaten until nearly dead. A special needs boy is brutally attacked. Evil has many guises. Jack Taylor has encountered most of them but nothing before has ever truly terrified him until a group called Headstone rears its ugly head. A series of seemingly random, insane, violent events has even the national police, the Guards, shaken. Most would see a headstone as a marker of the dead, but this coterie of evil intends to act as a death knell to every aspect of Jack’s life as an act of appalling violence alerts him to the horror enveloping Galway. Accepting the power of Headstone, Jack realizes that in order to fight back he must relinquish the remaining shreds of what has made him human, knowledge that may have come too late to prevent an act of such ferocious evil that the whole country would be changed forever - and in the worst way. With awful clarity, Jack knows that not only might he be powerless to stop it but that he may not have the grit needed to even face it.
  So there you have it. Last time out, Jack Taylor was grappling with the Devil himself, so how much more ferocious can evil get? Well, you’ll need to nab yourself a copy of HEADSTONE to find out. The way things are around here, we could be waiting until next Bloomsday for the book to arrive …
  Elsewhere in crime fic-related news - Rathgar, to be precise - I was delighted to play Watson to John Banville’s Holmes last night, as the Rathgar Bookshop hosted a Q&A in which I pretty much asked John Banville variations on the same question he gets asked everywhere he goes: i.e., Wassup wit dat Benny Blanco, eh? Things went fairly swimmingly in front of a very clued-in audience, which included one Alan Glynn, until such time as Banville started referencing classic crime titles I’d never heard of, at which point I handed over the audience for Qs, in case my ignorance of the subject was revealed.   Anyway, the point of the exercise was to promote Banville’s new Benjamin Black tome, A DEATH IN SUMMER, and DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS (have I mentioned that GREEN STREETS debuted at # 2 in the Nielsen hardback charts? Yes? Good.), in which I interview John Banville about his fascination with the crime narrative, regardless of whether he’s writing as Banville or Black. Many books were sold, much wine was drank, and everyone went home happy. Except Alan Glynn, the miserable sod.
  Incidentally, I reviewed A DEATH IN SUMMER in tandem with Arlene Hunt for RTE’s Arena programme last Monday night. You can catch the audio here, and my review notes ran a lot like this:
A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black (Mantle)

Synopsis:
A DEATH IN SUMMER is the fourth Benjamin Black novel, a series of crime novels written by John Banville and set in 1950’s Dublin. It opens in the wake of the apparent suicide of newspaper owner and well-to-do businessman Richard ‘Diamond Dick’ Jewell at his country estate in County Kildare. Lugubrious Inspector Hackett is first on the scene, followed by his friend and foil, the coroner Quirke. Their subsequent examination of the corpse, and their interview of the dead man’s widow Francoise Jewell, nee d’Aubigny, and her sister-in-law Denise, aka Dannie, convinces both men that Jewell’s death was not a suicide. Consequently, a murder investigation is embarked upon, one in which the obvious suspect appears to be Jewell’s bitter business rival, the Canadian-born Carlton Sumner, who has been attempting an hostile takeover of Jewell’s newspaper for some time. But as Quirke assists Hackett in his enquiries, and finds himself drawn into an affair with Jewell’s widow, malign forces make themselves manifest as powerful men strive to keep their dark deeds to remain in the shadows.

John Banville tends to describe his Benjamin Black novels as the work of an artisan rather than an artist, but it’s hard to resist the feeling, while reading A DEATH IN SUMMER, that he is enjoying his role as a crime writer rather more than is public persona of curmudgeonly aesthete allows. Certainly the novel is the most accomplished to date of the Benjamin Black offerings, being a satisfying blend of character, atmosphere, pace and (largely) unexpected twists.

Main Characters:

Quirke
The central character, Quirke - who ever only goes by a single name - has changed little since his first outing in CHRISTINE FALLS (2006). The survivor of a traumatic childhood, when he was orphaned early and consigned to a number of homes and industrial schools, he was later adopted by a wealthy judge, and brought up in the rarefied air of middle-class Ireland of the 1940s. A reformed alcoholic who spent time drying out at the beginning of ELEGY FOR APRIL (2010), Quirke falls off the wagon again in A DEATH IN SUMMER, in part because he betrays his lover, the actress Isabel Galloway, to begin an affair with Francoise d’Aubigny. A prickly man whose internal monologues reveal that he lacks the basic social graces, despite appearances to the contrary, Quirke is problematic and largely unknown even to those who know him best, Inspector Hackett and his daughter, Phoebe.

Inspector Hackett
Originally little more than a foil for Quirke, Hackett emerges fully fledged in A DEATH IN SUMMER; indeed, the story opens with Hackett attending the murder of Richard Jewell, with Quirke arriving a little later. A phlegmatic and studiously careful man, he favours stout boots even in the warmest of weather, which Banville alludes to in order point up Hackett’s love of routine and the status quo. Originally from the country, Hackett has never really adapted to the city life of Dublin, and is more than happy to play the buffoon when conducting interviews, the better to lure his suspects into a false sense of superiority.

Phoebe
Quirke gave up his daughter Phoebe for adoption when she was born, and her mother died in child-birth, and has only belatedly acknowledged her as his own, albeit for her sake rather than his. The pair are closer than either is prepared to admit, perhaps because they share the same character traits, and Phoebe provides for Banville a conduit to a younger generation of Dublin’s men and women, a more stylish generation that was to explode into the 1960s with a sense that they were entitled to more from life than grey, depressed Ireland had to offer. Here Phoebe provides Quirke, and by extension the reader, access via Dannie Jewell to Dublin’s ‘fast set’, one of whom is Carlton Sumner’s son Teddy, a young man with a history of violence against women.

Francoise d’Aubigny
Being French is enough in itself to give Francoise d’Aubigny a rare glamour in 1950’s Dublin, but she compounds the effect by being possessed of a haughty poise and a haunting beauty. A Jewess, and a veteran of the French Resistance in WWII, Francoise beguiles Quirke, drawing uncharacteristically passionate responses from a man who finds himself awkwardly adapting to acting on instinct and against his conscience, particularly as Francoise, who has been living a separate life from her late husband for some time, cannot be discounted as a suspect for his murder.

General Comment:
Despite the austere tone and apparently sedate pace, the novel progresses at a page-turning clip, due to the fact that Banville musters a host of characters to provide third-person narration, including minor characters such as his colleague Sinclair, who becomes romantically involved with Phoebe, and Dannie Jewell. This represents a neat sleight of hand by Banville, as the Benjamin Black novels, given their setting and tone, are generally considered ‘cosies’, a variation of the crime novel that tends to progress, as the name suggests, at a comfortable stroll rather than a flat-out sprint.

The prose, as Banville cheerfully confesses, is less accomplished than those of the self-consciously artistic Banville novels, being more functional, direct and plain. That said, Banville is probably incapable of publishing a bad sentence, regardless of writing persona, and A DEATH IN SUMMER is as precisely written as the best crime novels, even if the prose only rarely calls attention to itself. Some examples do stand out, such as “The priest was studying him closely again, running ghostly fingers over the braille of Quirke’s soul” (pg 144), but for the most part Banville is happy to allow form, function and plot to take precedence over any other considerations.

Conclusion:
As in previous Benjamin Black novels, the sepia-toned backdrop of 1950s Dublin gradually gives way to a more black-and-white world, in which Quirke and Hackett’s investigations penetrate to some of the darker corners of Ireland’s past. To explain further how that applies in the case of A DEATH IN SUMMER would be to provide too many spoilers, but it’s fair to say that by the novel’s conclusion, the apparent simplicity of black-and-white and the pieties of good-versus-evil have taken on the more ambiguously blurred lines of noir-ish chiaroscuro. Indeed, from the vantage point of 2011, the finale of A DEATH IN SUMMER represents one of the most stomach-churningly fatalistic noir endings of any crime novel published to date this year. - Declan Burke

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