The prospect of getting a belt of the crozier was no small threat in 1950s Ireland, and the power wielded by the Catholic Church provides a sinister undertone to Benjamin Black's Holy Orders (Mantle, €15.99). The sixth in the increasingly impressive Quirke series from John Banville, courtesy of his crime-writing alter ego, Holy Orders opens with the discovery of a corpse in the canal near Leeson Street Bridge in Dublin. Quirke, a pathologist, is shocked to discover that he recognises the man on his slab as Jimmy Minor, a journalist, whose notes suggest he was exploring the strange connection between the popular priest Fr Michael Honan and a Travellers' camp in Tallaght.
Quirke and his regular sparring partner, Insp Hackett, join forces again, tramping the rain-soaked Dublin streets in search of the truth behind Jimmy Minor’s death – or so the general thrust of the plot would have you believe. As has been the case in his previous novels, however, Black is much more interested in probing the depth and breadth of the dark shadows that loom over his period setting than he is in exposing truth to the light.
Leaning heavily on what the reader knows of scandalous revelations in the decades to come, Black concentrates on character and mood, deftly creating a malign and poisonous atmosphere that further disorientates an investigating hero who has long been prone to alcoholic self-medication, abrupt mood swings and vivid hallucinations – all, it would seem, the outworkings of a mind damaged in its impressionable youth by abuse suffered in a religious institution. A fascinating character, Quirke is scrupulously self-critical and all the more poignant for his awareness of his failings and the responsibility he bears for the damage he has himself wrought.
Charged with foreboding, the tale advances to the funereal rhythm of a muffled drum until Black unveils the devastatingly bleak noir climax.
Anointed the novel of the year by Graham Greene when it was first translated, in 1981, Minotaur, by Benjamin Tammuz (Europa Editions, €10.99), is republished as part of the Europa Editions World Noir series. Set for the most part in Israel, the novel opens with an unnamed secret agent embarking on a strange epistolary exchange with a young woman he notices while on active duty. As their odd relationship deepens – the agent applying classic spycraft to his chastely romantic obsession – we learn of how our "hero" came to be a spy, and why. Soon the story broadens out, and flashes back in time, so that the reader is drawn into a tale that encompasses the spy's family history, and how they came to live in Palestine in the 1920s.
In writing this unorthodox spy novel, Tammuz eschews the usual tropes of the genre, concentrating instead on the personal cost of sacrifice and duty. Constructed from vignettes, and at times offering the same scenario as experienced by different characters, it proceeds fitfully but compellingly, a novel as jigsaw that truly makes sense only when the final page falls into place. It’s a demanding read, as you might expect from a novel in which the spy gives himself the codename Kafka, but it’s one that will linger in the memory.
Sara Paretsky's Breakdown (Hodder, €11.50) is a far more direct narrative, one that stays faithful to the hard-boiled private-eye tradition. The 15th VI Warshawski novel, it opens with the self-proclaimed "street-fighting woman" stumbling around a Chicago cemetery where a group of girls are enacting a bizarre ritual based on the Carmilla, Queen of the Night novels. Their faux-vampire drama is interrupted when Warshawski discovers nearby a dead man who has been impaled through the chest.
It's an enjoyably lurid prologue, but soon Warshawski is mired in an investigation that sucks her into a very dirty political battle between a Democratic candidate for the senate and the right-wing demagogues who seek to destroy her. Paretsky pulls no punches as Warshawski pounds the Chicago streets, skewering anti-Semitism, misogyny and media bias with her barbed quips and one-liners. As always, the most delicious aspect of a Paretsky novel is the way she remains faithful to the parameters laid down by the classic private-eye troika of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald while providing us with a bracingly feminist take on the genre.
Marco Vichi's Death in Florence (Hodder & Stoughton, €11.99) is a police procedural set in 1966. The fourth of Vichi's novels to feature the lugubrious Insp Bordelli, the story opens with Bordelli investigating the disappearance of a young boy. When his worst fears are confirmed, Bordelli opens a murder file and begins a painstaking search for justice.
Marco Vichi is a multiple award-winner in his native Italy, and Death in Florence is a satisfyingly realistic police procedural – the investigation proceeds by fits and starts, by rumour and innuendo, with scraps of clues providing only momentary hope before Bordelli's best efforts are confounded again.
The novel echoes to Mussolini-era fascism, and Bordelli, a veteran of the second World War, is a noble but pragmatic man, a hero who acknowledges the truth of Italy's (and his own) ambiguous relationship with morality even as he strives to do the right thing. Vivid in its descriptions of the grandly decaying Florence and its rural hinterland, and particularly the cataclysmic flood that struck the city in 1966, Death in Florence confirms Vichi's place in the vanguard of the new wave of Italian crime writers.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is Slaughter's Hound, published by Liberties Press.