Quirke back doing the right thing in ‘mean and mendacious’ city

Declan Burke reviews the best new crime fiction including a new Benjamin Black book

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke: the pathologist returns in Even the Dead, the seventh novel in the series by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). Photograph: Steffan Hill/BBC

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke: the pathologist returns in Even the Dead, the seventh novel in the series by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). Photograph: Steffan Hill/BBC

 

The series of mystery novels by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) set in 1950s Dublin grow increasingly impressive, even as his protagonist, the pathologist Quirke, drifts further into existential ennui.

Even the Dead (Penguin, €16.99), the seventh in the series, opens with this most reluctant of heroes on sabbatical, suffering from “mental blanks and momentary delusions” as a result of a beating he suffered two years previously.

When a young man is discovered dead in suspicious circumstances in the Phoenix Park, however, Quirke rouses himself to go prowling “the mean and mendacious little city” with his companion-in-arms, Inspector Hackett.

The pacing is as meandering as ever, as Black regularly strays from the plot to explore Quirke’s bewilderment at the world and his place in it. The story is again concerned with the malign power exercised by those who mix politics and religion that has proved fertile ground for Black in the past, but the lush prose (“The sky was an inverted bowl of bruised blue radiance, except in the west where the sunset looked like a fire-fight at sea”) is underpinned by a brutally noir moral relativism. Quirke, observes his daughter Phoebe, believes life consists of “going through the motions, observing the forms, doing the right thing”. That may be the case, but much like his creator, Quirke does the right thing in a deceptively effective way.

Freedom’s Child (Harper Fiction, €19.50), the debut thriller from Jax Miller, an American author living in Ireland, opens in dramatic fashion with the line: “My name is Freedom Oliver and I killed my daughter.” Living under an assumed name in a witness protection programme in Oregon, Freedom, who describes herself as “a murderer, a cop killer, a fugitive, a drunk”, breaks cover for the first time in almost two decades when said daughter, Rebekah, goes missing.

Blunt instrument

Hunted by the recently released Matthew Delaney, who went to prison for 18 years on the basis of Freedom’s testimony, Freedom travels to Kentucky to investigate the fanatical Christian cult established by the man who adopted Rebekah, Virgil Paul.

Plausibility is at a premium in Freedom’s Child, and language a rather blunt instrument, but Miller is less concerned with narrative subtlety and delicate prose than she is with creating a propulsive, full-throttle tale of revenge and redemption. The overall effect is a kind of literary grind-house, with Freedom a larger-than-life avenging angel driven by a host of demons, a self-confessed promiscuous drunk and a glutton for punishment who might well be Lisbeth Salander’s long-lost twin.

French author Dominique Sylvain’s second novel to be translated into English, Dirty War (Quercus, €13.99), opens in Paris with the horrific death of lawyer Florian Vidal, who has been tortured to death with a flaming tyre around his neck. When Commandant Sacha Duguin investigates, he discovers that Vidal is a business lawyer specialising in arms contracts for Richard Gratien, aka ‘Mr Africa’, a shadowy figure who has made a fortune brokering deals in illegal weaponry to corrupt African regimes. It’s a fascinating set-up, and Sylvain expertly muddies the waters with a dispassionate account of the tensions that exist between the institutions – policing, political and judicial – responsible for counter-terrorism.

Unfortunately, the novel is subtitled A Lola and Ingrid Investigation, and Lola and Ingrid – a former police commissaire and an exotic dancer, respectively – repeatedly interrupt the narrative flow as Sylvain inserts them into the story to no great effect other than to duplicate Sacha Duguin’s investigations and to provide unnecessary exposition via dialogue.

Sinéad Crowley’s second novel, Are You Watching Me? (Quercus, €17.99), reprises the character of Detective Claire Boyle, who was pregnant during Crowley’s debut, Can Anybody Help Me? (2014). Back at work, the Dublin-based Boyle investigates the apparently pointless murder of the ageing, gentle James Mannion in his home; meanwhile, Liz Cafferky, Ireland’s newest media star and communications executive with Tír na nÓg, a drop-in centre for old men, finds herself stalked by Stephen, who believes Liz’s smile “was aimed at him; her words meant for him alone”.

Passionate intensity

Crowley returns to the themes that underpinned her debut: the chilling vulnerability of a woman targeted by a psychologically damaged man and the anonymity afforded by modern communications technology. However, this is a more assured offering.

There’s a passionate intensity (and a very neat plot twist to boot) in Crowley’s poignant depiction of a whole swathe of old men abandoned by society, while Stephen, ostensibly the villain of the piece, is given a surprisingly sympathetic reading. A compulsively readable thriller, Are You Watching Me? is an absorbing variation on the “domestic noir” genre.

The Way of Sorrows (Blue Rider Press, €20.50) concludes Jon Steele’s Angelus Trilogy and does so in very impressive style. The Watchers (2011) and Angel City (2013) established the scenario in which Harper, a private detective, discovers that he is in fact an angel in human form and engaged in an aeons-long battle with the forces of darkness for possession of humanity’s soul.

Here Harper sifts through the wreckage left behind by Evil’s onslaught at the end of Angel City, blending Chandleresque witticisms into a contemporary tale of the apocalypse as the action moves from Lausanne to Alaska and on to Russia ending with an explosive climax in Jerusalem, as Harper and his colleagues strive to make good on “a prophecy about a child conceived of light, born into the world to guide the creation through the next stage of evolution”.

It’s a novel of jaw-dropping ambition and imagination – Zoroaster, Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, Jesus Christ and the space probe Voyager all play their part – as Steele, formerly an award-winning journalist, gives Harper an appropriately fabulous, epic finale.

Declan Burke is a journalist and author. His latest novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House)

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