Book review: Crime novel 'Vengeance' probes existential mysteries

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Samuel Beckett would have made a lousy crime-fiction writer. Life has no plot, no clues, no motive; we just stand around waiting for something to happen -- and usually it doesn't.

Fellow Irish writer John Banville is an inheritor of Beckett's brand of Gaelic existentialism. His 2005 Man Booker Prize novel, "The Sea," was a rumination about one man's loss of innocence and love, deeply affecting and confined to the interior of the psyche. The world outside is walled off.

By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt ($26).

But Mr. Banville is a playful writer who enjoys tinkering with the crime-fiction genre under the name Benjamin Black. He dashes off mysteries with the energy of Mickey Spillane -- five since 2007 -- but unlike the action hero Mike Hammer, his lead actor Quirke is so freighted down with Catholic guilt and repression that he can barely get out the door in the morning.

Maybe it's the Jameson or the sadness and despair of his past that finds Quirke stumbling around 1950s Dublin, promising to quit after the next drink while predictably doing the wrong thing, agonizing over it, then doing it again.

He's not an official sleuth, but chief pathologist at the ironically named Hospital of the Holy Family in a society where few families follow the path of holiness. His day job is to tell Dublin police Inspector Hackett how murder victims were killed, then Hackett taps into Quirke's morbid view of humanity to determine why.

For Black, though, the true mysteries in his crime fiction are the characters. The crimes are pedestrian and their perpetrators obvious. In "Vengeance, the latest Quirke caper, an eager reporter aptly named Jimmy Minor suggests the author's opinion of conventional mysteries:

"They made everything so squared off and neat, like a brown-paper parcel tied up with twine ... There was a body, there were clues, there were suspects, then the detective came along and put it all together into a story, a true story, the story of the truth -- the story of what happened ... I used to get such a warm feeling when I reached the end and everything was explained."

Warm feelings are strangers to Quirke and crew including his conflicted daughter Phoebe and her sort-of-boyfriend Sinclair, Quirke's assistant. A double killing draws their attention because it involves acquaintances of Phoebe and Sinclair, playboy twin sons of prominent businessman Victor Delahaye whose suicide is linked to the killing of his partner Jack Clancy.

The shape of the plot soon becomes clear to sharp readers, a story that's similar to the crime of Black's last book, "A Death in Summer" in which a prominent businessman apparently kills himself. In both books, Quirke is quickly seduced by the ungrieving widows and their whiskey bottles, rues the day, then hopes it happens again.

Fighting against the fog of his drinking and the stupidity of his lust, Quirke manages to learn the true story of these venal crimes, but we shouldn't read Black for his clever puzzles. There is no definitive solution to the confusion of the heart and soul, particularly in a culture of repressed desire, guilt and hypocrisy, liberally sprinkled with the holy water of alcohol.

Like a Beckett character, Quirke is trapped in the sameness of everyday life with no thought of the future because the present requires too much energy. The mystery of these Black novels is how his hero will escape his fate.


Bob Hoover:


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