Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Death in Summer

While I was reading Benjamin Black's A Death in Summer (2011, Henry Holt and Co.), I found myself thinking that this latest in the Quirke series was not grabbing me as much as its predecessors had.  Quirke himself seemed not quite so disastrously central to the story as in the others, and this plot generally felt thinner in foreboding and, well, darkness, than the previous tales in this series.  Yes, the atmosphere was there in all its stinkiness - stinks, whiffs, and smells as usual are deployed to layer it in, and there's a lot of heat and for once, sunlight.  So this story, taking place during a heat wave in Dublin, involved a lot of sweat.

A Death in Summer finds our Quirke helping his polenta-pal Hackett figure out who killed a powerful, and powerfully disliked businessman named Richard Jewell.  The death appears to be a suicide but it is immediately clear to Quirke and Hackett that no one could blow his own head off like that and still be holding on to the gun.
"The shotgun blast had lifted Jewell out of his chair and flung him backwards at a crooked angle across the desk, where he lay with a bit jawbone and a few teeth and a bloodied stump of spine, all that was left of what had been his head, dangling down on the far side.  On the big picture window in front of the desk there was a great splatter of blood and brains, like a giant peony blossom, with a gaping hole in the middle of it giving a view of rolling grasslands stretching off to the horizon."  (2)
Black doesn't go in for gratuitous violence, in fact, the more horrific crimes in this particular book are never fully described.  (It doesn't take much to intimate what they are, esp. if you've followed the Jimmy Saville case in the U.K.)  So his judicious use of such imagery makes it all the more effective, and I love the idea of the peony, a flower of summer, as the motif of this violent act that takes place in the hot depths of the season.

Anyway, Jewell has, not surprisingly, a not-very-upset wife, a remote and perhaps disturbed daughter,  a weird sister, various business frenemies, and some funny ties to a local orphanage.  Maybe you can guess where that goes. Quirke and Hackett eventually figure it out, although the denouement suggests that justice will never truly be served.

Most of the usual characters are involved here - Phoebe, Rose, Hackett, Sinclair - but it is only the last one who features significantly in the story and then in an oddly central way for someone who is so present but usually so unimportant in Quirke's life.  I mean, I know why Sinclair's plot line turns the way it does but overall this whole story lacked the tightrope-quality of whether Quirke would make disastrous choices for himself and those he cares about like he usually does.  He makes some bad choices but they are also made for him and cleaned up by an all-too-convenient skeedaddle right at the end, which lacks some of the angst I've come to expect from our Quirke

Then I finished A Death in Summer and started the highly hyped Ratlines (2013, Soho Crime) by Stuart Neville and realized again how great a writer Benjamin Black is and thought that maybe I had judged too hastily.  Man, I just could not get going on the Neville, it felt soooo one-dimensional compared to Black's nuanced personal portraits, layered atmosphere of light and smell and landscape, and subtle social strictures that make his affluent 1950s Dublin a cage for its inhabitants.

I'll probably finish Ratlines, but I need something a little less literary before I turn back to it so it is better by comparison.  But I'll definitely return to Quirke.


  1. I took a look at your blog because the name caught my eye. 'Crime Pays' was the title a journalist recently gave to an interview about my books. I'm glad I looked. It's an interesting blog. I'll be back!