Benjamin Black, “Vengeance”

Well, this one’s a doozy. Of course we expect nothing less from John Banville/Benjamin Black, who seems to have excessive levels of talent and energy. But the opening scene of Vengeance is unforgettable. Dublin businessman Victor Delahaye invites the son of his business partner, Davy Clancy, out on his sailboat for the day. The dynamics between the Clancy and Delahaye families — the business goes back a generation — are such that Davy feels he must go. Victor sails out into the open sea, and after some cryptic conversation with Davy, shoots himself in the chest.

A country house in Cork, near the sea, is the poisoned Eden in this novel.

A country house in Cork, near the sea, is the poisoned Eden in this novel.

Bang — there’s the death that opens this sly mystery. Not for nothing is Black’s chief protagonist called “Quirke.” Where’s the mystery when we, the readers, know that Victor Delahaye was a suicide? Quirke, who is a pathologist, can’t even really be said to investigate much in this novel. He’s more like a half-trained hound, snuffling around, getting in trouble with the ladies and the drink (this being Ireland, after all). In fact, though Vengeance would probably be classified as a “police procedural,” we see very little procedure. Quirke’s official sidekick, the serio-comic Inspector Hackett, does question a couple of suspects in police headquarters, but most of the real detecting is a matter of intuition and guesswork. The suicide, of course, is the tip of the iceberg. The relationships between the Clancy and Delahaye families are a tangled multigenerational mess of resentment and exploitation that take into account both character and background, pitting the grand Protestant Delahayes against the Catholic (thus more plebeian) Clancys. Also included: madness, sexual misbehavior, and even more liquor.

I love the way Black writes. He often gets his characters into position and then halts the action to describe the scene: the light, the smells, the emotional tenor of a location. He takes care, good author that he is, to give every conversation a different background, so that his readers get a moody tour of Dublin and Cork. I also like the way Black treats the recurring subsidiary characters in this series: you never the sense that he’s wheeling them on and off the stage just because the readers expect to see them. Everyone has a genuine role to play, and none of them are cute, which is, for me, a fatal flaw of some mystery series. Black offers the mix of grit and redemption that feels right to me. He also nods here to the artificial nature of the genre, with a long speech from a minor character about classic mysteries:

I loved them. They made everything so squared off and neat, like a brown-paper parcel tied up with twine… I used to get such a warm feeling when I reached the end and everything was explained, the killer identified and taken away by the police, and everybody else going back to their lives as if none of it mattered, as if nothing serious had taken place.

It’s hard to write that kind of story sincerely these days, but Black has found a way to play with the genre that feels fresh and nostalgic at the same time. No mean feat.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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5 Responses to Benjamin Black, “Vengeance”

  1. Alex says:

    I read the first two in this series but wasn’t engaged enough to continue. You make me think that perhaps I should reconsider and go back to where I left off. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Well, Alex, Quirke is Quirke and Black is Black — the stately pace doesn’t pick up and the general mood is still pretty bleak; if the series didn’t suit you the first couple of times around, I wouldn’t say “Vengeance” is going to deliver anything very different!

  3. Mrs Madrigal says:

    This sounds intriguing. I’ve read Banville’s novels, but none of his Benjamin Black.
    Should I read in order?

    • carolwallace says:

      Probably, if you can. But they stand alone pretty well. Also I’m not smart enough to carry the joining information from one to the next and Banville/Black is clever enough (really, really clever, that guy!) to not let the plot points depend on previous information. Best reason to read in order is full description of Quirke. Who is, well. With a name like that? What would you expect?

  4. Pingback: Benjamin Black, “Holy Orders” | Book Group of One

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