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.
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.