Review: Benjamin Black

Joy. There is a Benjamin Black detective novel I didn’t know about. Googling carelessly, I had missed one, Death in Summer. Now I anticipate a stretch of fascinating gloom.

It won’t be a long stretch; a Black book is a book to be devoured. Nothing much gets solved in these deeply noir-ish stories of postwar Dublin; they are about the journey, not the destination. Trouble endures, persistent as the rain. Class suffocates; elites tyrannize. Black — pen name of the celebrated novelist John Banville -- unravels the mystery format so far that his man Quirke, a troubled pathologist probing mysteries far beyond the autopsy room, may well have got the whole thing wrong and drunk himself stupid by the end of the story.

For all that, these stories — Christine Falls, The Silver Swan and the brand-new Vengeance are the three I have read — are shot through with light. It falls, like substance, through smoky windows, sparks off the edge of a glass, fades into dusk as early as mid-afternoon.

Quirke notices light, perhaps because he will admit only a flicker into his own life. He is an orphan who was rescued but damaged; he married the wrong woman, and gave away his child. “Lugubrious, bull-like, intractable,” Quirke lives between the poles of depressive addiction and numb recovery. Informally, he and Detective Inspector Hackett team up to chase mysteries, but they are grim companions, not friends.

Here, crimes and secrets — lots of secrets — are rooted in the place, in its maze of caste and custom. Its physical details are compulsively fascinating. When someone in a Black novel walks down a Dublin street you hear the footfalls, you see what the character sees (sleet sifts into the porch of a pub, a high pram rolls by; a dray horse drops in its harness onto paving stones.)

There’s lots of business with the evocative everyday paraphernalia of mugs and spoons, tea and sugar cubes, and cigarettes (the brand names —- “Passing Cloud”!) drooping ashes, the snap and sizzle of lighters — and hats twisted in nervous hands. Black can pluck a memorable metaphor out of the most fleeting thing: As a woman’s chest brushes his arm, Quirke thinks of the “crisp silk cup” of brassiere and breast.

Crime and plot and denouement aren’t why I love these novels. It’s the clever setting-up and the nervy looseness of the conclusion, which has a kind of daring lightness to it.