'A Death in Summer': Lost souls trapped in dirty Dublin

Book review: 'A Death in Summer,' by Benjamin Black. Holt, $25.

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From Raymond Chandler's sunny Los Angeles to Stieg Larsson's chilly Sweden, location (I'll write the word only once) is as important in crime fiction as it is in real estate.

Regarded for his prize-winning literary fiction, Irish author John Banville also writes crime novels under the name Benjamin Black. Mr. Banville, 65, is a longtime Dublin resident who knows its landmarks, narrow streets and changing seasons so instinctively that the city is an essential part of his books.

In the Black books, it's the Dublin of the 1950s that infuses these dark tales with the smoke and stink of that polluted era, made even more unhealthy beneath plumes of cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol on the breath.

The author -- Mr. Black from now on -- views Dublin as purgatory for his tortured Irish Catholic souls, suffering because they are Irish and Catholic, conditions that Mr. Black believes damn his characters to existential surrender.

In this fourth installment of his "depressed in Dublin" series, Mr. Black seems almost as resigned as his troubled hero, Quirke, to finding no other theme but the corrosive effects of Catholic guilt on the psyche.

Again, a prominent Irish family hides horrible secrets linked to Catholic organizations and again, a murder in that family sparks the slow-moving unhappy Quirke and his morose daughter Phoebe into dangerous waters.

Quirke is a medical examiner at the Hospital of the Holy Family, a man with a past that no American soap opera writer could imagine, including concealing his fatherhood from Phoebe for 18 years.

He's summoned to the mansion of Dublin's leading newspaper publisher Richard Jewell who apparently has blown his head off with a shotgun, but the gun's cradled in his arms, an obvious sign that somebody put it there after shooting him.

Enter Jewell's widow, the hauntingly beautiful -- and French -- Francoise d'Aubigny -- and Quirke's long-dormant heart starts pounding like he's Lord of the Dance. Big mistake, of course.

When Mme. d'Aubigny ignores the conventional mourning period and beds Quirke, readers of the crime genre realize they've been there many times before because murder and romance always spell disaster.

That's disappointing for a writer of Mr. Black's talent, especially when he adds a shadowy Catholic men's group, of which Jewell is a member, that has an unhealthy interest in an orphanage and "A Death in Summer" devolves into a conventional story.

Benjamin Black is also John Banville, however, a master of style and language whose writing is rich, lyrical and redolent of literary allusions.

Quirke survives -- physically, at least, although his soul takes another direct hit -- to appear in another Black novel, we hope, with more insight and a more ingenious plot.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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