By The Book: Benjamin Black’s “A Death in Summer”

Although A Death in Summer (Holt), Benjamin Black’s fourth in a series featuring Dublin pathologist-detective Quirke, belongs to the genre of crime fiction, the title gets it right by adding “A Novel.” Writing under a hardly secret pseudonym, John Banville, the Irish novelist and screenwriter whose The Sea won the prestigious Man Booker prize in 2005, gets to craft more accessible, action-filled narratives as Benjamin Black, but style will out.

A single word can do it (“he sat down on a complicated little chair made of stainless steel and white leather”. . .“Quirke looked up and saw a strew of stars like a smear of mist down the center of the sky”); or telling details that nail a character’s description while neatly delaying the action (“The waitress came, a wizened personage with steely curls showing under her bonnet, and asked them if they wanted anything more, and Hackett [the chief inspector] requested a fresh pot of tea, and she tottered off, talking to herself under her breath”).

Plot, for all its intrigue,  is less compelling than character in Black’s fiction. Both major and minor players are a mystery unto themselves, and their pleasures always yield to implacable despair. Quirke, musing on love, sees it as “a kind of miasmic cloud, a kind of ether teeming with bacilli, through which we moved as we moved through the ordinary air, immune to infection for most of the time but destined to succumb sooner or later, somewhere or other, struck down to writhe upon our beds in tender torment.” Not the usual prose of crime novels. [/expand]

Though not specified, A Death in Summer is set in the mid-1950s, an inference drawn from a reference to the Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe. Indeed, A Death in Summer has a surprising lot to say about Irish attitudes towards Jews, starting with the fact that the corpse (an apparent suicide) mentioned in the book’s opening sentence—“the greater part of his head blown off and clutching a shotgun in his bloodless hands”—belongs to Richard (Diamond Dick) Jewell, a newspaper tycoon, a man noted for his generous support of orphanages, and a Jew. Much is made about his name and his “race” even (especially?) among the well-off and educated. The cool, elegant and enigmatic Francoise d’Aubigny, Jewell’s widow, with whom Quirke gets involved, tells him that when she married Jewell, her father, “a great Jew hater,” disowned her, and Pheobe, Quirke’s intelligent daughter, confesses that she didn’t know there were Jews in Ireland. Antisemitism can also, of course, take a vicious turn, as it does here when thugs threaten then beat up Quirke’s assistant, Sinclair (a Jew by blood, he notes, not practice). The degenerate horror at the center of Black’s tale, however, which Quirke will come to psych out and connect to Jewell’s murder, emerges mainly as the work of priests past and present.

It’s not necessary to have read Black’s earlier Quirke forays—the exposition here is unobtrusive. Quirke was an impoverished orphan adopted by a wealthy family. If he does not live comfortably in either world, it’s not because of class but his own unease—with his daughter, co-workers and most of all himself. He smokes incessantly—just about everyone does (a mark of noir fiction in the mid-century. Though Quirke is the protagonist, other characters are also given points of view so that they can be seen as possible suspects and sympathetic at the same time. Such ambiguity is typical of Banville/Black who gets into the heads of his characters and inside the culture of the times.

Quick Picks: Witches of the East End 

Although PR notices and online comments state that with Witches of the East End, best-selling Young Adult author Melissa de la Cruz has moved from the teen scene to adult fiction, a reader may beg to disagree. The story engages as a fantasy for the “Buffy the Vampire” set, which is not to deny it merit, but only to redefine the audience. Though most of the action takes place on Shelter Island—called North Hampton here, with nods to a Gardiner family (the author spent many a summer on The East End)—the 19-year old protagonist, Freya (hello, Wagner), a gorgeous, sexy immortal witch who has had her magic powers put on hold, along with those of her older sister and mother, and is straining against restrictions put upon them centuries ago, clearly belongs to the YA set, to judge from various pop cultural references. An adventure-romance, full of intrigue,  magic, and sexual yearning, as well as love of community and family, the novel fleshes out desire hardly shocking to today’s youth. A good summer book for older girls. [/expand]

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