The world and its wicked ways

 

CRIME: JOHN BOYNEreviews A Death in SummerBy Benjamin Black Mantle, 311pp. £12.99

‘YOU THINK YOU’VE seen the worst of the world,” remarks a character towards the end of A Death in Summer, “but the world and its wicked ways can always surprise you.”

Wickedness. Who embraces it, what inspires it, what results from it: these are the central themes of the crime novel, a genre that John Banville has embraced over the past half-decade through his Benjamin Black alter ego and under whose name he has written this engrossing story of wickedness among the moneyed classes, whose private passions and personal peccadilloes underlie the crimes they commit.

The year is 1956. Richard Jewell, “Diamond Dick”, the owner of the Clarionnewspaper, is found with his head blown off. Suspicions of suicide are quickly dispelled in favour of murder. Arriving at the family estate, the pathologist Quirke and Insp Hackett are greeted by a pair of chilly women, Jewell’s French wife, Françoise, and his sister Dannie, both of whom appear to be coping rather well with their recent loss.

Quirke, who struggles with the constant temptation to order another drink, follows his instincts methodically, sharing his insights with the likable inspector, who in turn uses the pathologist as a sounding board for his own theories. Traditionally, in novels such as this, the inspector is portrayed as having been promoted above his intelligence quotient, while it is the amateur sleuth who has the greater gift for unearthing the truth. But no such cliches exist here; there are no fools in this novel.

The question of who killed Diamond Dick becomes somehow less important than the slow deciphering of the suspects, the two strong female characters in particular. Françoise, who falls into a relationship with Quirke with almost indecent haste, might be seen as too cool and unfeeling in the wake of her husband’s murder, but she acknowledges this herself. Dannie is more complex, a mess of emotions, holding herself together while struggling to keep her mind at peace. A third female, Richard and Françoise’s nine-year-old daughter, appears as a rather Gothic presence, but her curious detachment soon becomes crucial to the story.

Tension is built in intimate scenes where characters exude confidence but are quickly provoked into insecurity. An exchange between Quirke’s daughter Phoebe and his assistant, Sinclair, in a bed-sitting room offers a thread of story from which, perhaps, the subplots of future novels might spring. An encounter between Hackett and a wealthy playboy in an interrogation room allows the tables to be turned on the cocky rich boy, while a scene between Quirke and the nine year-old Giselle in her bedroom offers one of the most unsettling moments in the book, the significance of which only grows as the story develops.

John Banville, a man for whom the term “serious literary figure” might have been invented, often speaks of these books in a slightly offhand way, as if they were of less worth than his “Banville” novels. This brings to mind Graham Greene, a writer who also divided his work into literary fiction and “entertainments”, although, when one considers that the entertainments included The Ministry of Fearand Our Man in Havana, one might think that Greene was doing himself a slight disservice.

The same thought can be applied to Banville. Although plot is most important here, there are moments when the reader pauses at a description that elevates the form. Glancing at the sky, “a haze of stars looked like the bed of a river silted with silver”. The colour of a woman’s eyes reminds the pathologist of “those marbles made of milky glass that were much prized when he was a boy”. An aged priest’s hand is “a bundle of thin dry twigs in a wrapping of greaseproof paper”. These novels may not be part of what the author views as his literary works, but that does not preclude him from displaying his great gifts as a prose stylist throughout.

As the novel develops, the unsettling image of an orphanage for boys, ominously known as the Cage, rears its head and, with it, everything we know now, with the benefit of half a century’s testimonies, and everything they didn’t know then. Quirke, resident in this same orphanage as a boy, is drawn to it and its secrets, and it is here, in the dark corridors populated by “boys sidling past . . . their downcast eyes” that motives and personal histories are finally uncovered.

John Banville has proved himself to be a remarkably prolific writer over the past decade, with four Quirke books, three literary novels and a memoir of Prague to his name(s). The novels speak for themselves, individually, in clear and lucid tones; these crime novels, however, are growing into a self-contained body of work that any writer would be proud to lay claim to.

There is no predictability to Quirke: he remains a cipher of sorts, neither likable nor annoying, simply there, watching, considering, piecing things together, solving the puzzles, able to unmask the killer but uncertain about who in fact should take the blame. He might be a pathologist, but, in this regard, his actions are not far removed from those of a novelist. Of any genre.


John Boyne’s latest novel, The Absolutist, has just been published by Doubleday