Saturday, August 30, 2014


After something like Moby Dick, you can't just go read any old thing.  A lot of the not-quite-first-rate material that Soho Crime has sent me this year becomes positively the freshman team in comparison.  Ed Lin's Ghost Month was one that I read about four pages of, and then put away with some disappointment.

But you can always count on Benjamin Black for some fine prose, and exquisite attention to the details of his upper-crust-y Irish setting.  Vengeance (Picador, 2012) worked just fine as a post-MD read, although I think Black, and by extension, his sad pathologist Quirke (did we learn his first name?  Garrett?  He doesn't answer but I think, yes, that may be it) are phoning it in a bit here.

There is no mystery surrounding the death of Victor Delahaye, unless you want to know why he chose his business partner's son as a witness, or why he left said son, a landlubber if there ever was one, floating alone on a large sailboat after shooting himself in the chest.  But when his partner Jack Clancy is killed, well, there's your mystery.  Vengeance includes the by-now almost stock Black characters of the not-particularly-grieving-but-particularly-beautiful widow, the creepily-amoral young men who are clearly up to no good, Quirke's daughter Phoebe who presents as fragile and old-fashioned but has a dark thrill-seeking streak, and Inspector Hackett who plays up his country roots with his "Is it yourself, Miss Griffin!" greetings and the like.  (198)

Black's writing is mostly its usual marvelous self (see Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, and Elegy for April) but maybe getting a little old?  The Irish summer sun is various shades of gold:  gilded, molten, burnished, and there are just enough polished floors and crystal bowls of fresh flowers in elegant houses.  Smells, as usual, are scene-setters, culminating perhaps with one character, who is badly sunburned, and remarks "I can smell myself . . . I can actually smell my skin where it got burned.  It's like fried pork."  (59)  That detail is a bit off-putting, but has that edge that sets Black above the merely elegant mystery.  He's not gone with taste before, however, and "a lustrous Mersault that in Quirke's mouth tasted of gold coins and melons" had me rolling my eyes and wondering if I was reading a Pat Conroy novel.  (281)  Finally, some of the plot points felt a bit recycled - once again Quirke gets closer than is wise to the black widow, once again Phoebe make a poor decision and gets herself into a tight spot, and again a fine dover sole is consumed at a window table at the Shelbourne.

Quirke really isn't central to this story, he just kind of hangs around to help out his friend Hackett - who claims to need Quirke's sophisticated touch around "the quality."  Maybe that's why the story doesn't compel as much as the earlier ones, in which Our Hero was actually a more central figure.  I had much the same sense from A Death in Summer, and wonder if Black, and Quirke, need a break.

Still, weak plot devices aside, nobody bites the soft underbelly of the upper crust quite like Black.  Consider his description of the sailing set, right at the beginning:
"And they were all so jolly and brisk, smiling in a smug, self-satisfied way that set his teeth on edge.  Unlike him, they knew what they were doing, the wind-burned men in yachting caps and khaki shorts and shapeless sweaters playing at being old sea dogs, and their loud-voiced, leathery wives - sea bitches, he thought, with a twinge of bleak amusement.  He did not belong here, among these sailing folk with their lazy expertise; he knew it, and they knew it, too, which meant they had to behave twice as heartily towards him, though he could see that look in their eyes, that gleam of merry contempt."  (3-4)
You know who he's talking about, you see them around here, or in Edgartown. It's a splendidly nasty little detail that keeps you coming back for more.  Maybe with an amber whiskey in hand, because next up is Holy Orders.

Here's an interesting postscript:  Black has written a new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde.  Does his prose translate from socially corseted Dublin to California?  Based on the earlier Quirke novels, I'd certainly give him the benefit of the doubt.  Others wonder.

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