Author: Benjamin Black

2011, Henry Holt and Company

Filed under: Literary, Mystery.

A Death in Summer boasts no world-breaker plot, no nail-biting race to find a killer, and no chilling plot twists. In fact, for long stretches the mystery idles in the background, nearly forgotten as characters sit around and smoke cigarettes and talk.

For most mystery writers, that would mean the book fails. But Benjamin Black—or John Banville as he’s known when winning Bookers—isn’t most mystery writers. In his hands, such a premise becomes a pleasure, mostly because he’s such a damn good writer that simply existing in the world he creates will satisfy.

Benjamin Black mysteries follow, primarily, a pathologist named Dr. Quirke, who solves crimes in 1950s Dublin with the help of an assistant named Sinclair and a police inspector named Hackett.

The crime this time around is the murder of a newspaper tycoon. Or the possible murder, at least, as it first seems to be a suicide. Quirke and Hackett slowly, almost lazily trace the clues of the case down various branches. Their attitude suits the setting: horse-drawn carriages dominate the streets of Black’s Dublin, and Quirke’s corner of the city is its prim high society, where tranquility testifies to high standing.

As the investigation proceeds, the focus of the narrative shifts to Quirke’s affair with the dead man’s widow, and Quirke’s daughter taking up with his assistant. Much more time and energy are spent living these lives than chasing particular clues, and that’s fine because the star of the show is Black’s prose.

Like this passage, in which the assistant Sinclair sees a prostitute on the street, and his thoughts spool out:

There was a hazy green glow over the square, and mist on the grass behind the black railings. The whores were out, four or five of them, two of them keeping each other company, both skinny and dressed in black and starkly pale as the harpies in Dracula’s castle. They gave him a look as he passed by but made no overture: maybe they thought he was a plainclothes out to trap them. One of them had a limp—the clap, most likely. One day, not so far in the future, he might fold back the corner of a sheet and find her before him on the slab, that thin face, the bluish eyelids closed, her lip still swollen. He wondered, as he often wondered, if he should leave this city, try his luck somewhere else, London, New York, even. Quirke would never retire, or by the time he did it would be too late to be his successor; something that was in him now would have been used up, a vital force would be gone.

It’s not just the elegance of this prose that captivates me, it’s the way it loops through the character’s life, the way it connects large concepts like death and impermanence to these two people—Sinclair and the prostitute—who haven’t even spoken (yet), and the way it reflects the thinker at every line. The book’s greatness lies in passages like this, where Black exercises his understanding of people along with his talent for the written word.

And while the case of the dead newspaper tycoon eventually coughs up a twist or two, along with a few gruesome revelations, fans of the modern crime novel should brace themselves for a different kind of story, one that’s more of a late-night companion than an up-late page-turner.

Similar reads: Misadventure, by Millard Kaufman; Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon