Monday, July 4, 2011

A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Good old Quirke.  The coroner/sleuth/ladies man is back to solve another puzzle.  I've read the other Dr. Quirke books by Benjamin Black, and there's just something so appealing about the Dublin city life and Dr. Quirke in it:  his mournful boozing, the earnest but misguided attempts at parenting his adult daughter, and the stream of women that never ends, despite no apparent effort on his part to attract them.  In fact, I picture him much as the detective George Gently played by Martin Shaw on the British television series Gently

In any case, this story involves the suspected suicide of the high-profile society member and horseman Richard Jewell.  Quirke ends up at the country estate almost immediately and assists in interviewing the widow, a striking French woman who is calm and collected despite the horror she just discovered.  As in many television shows, the medical examiner here seems more of a detective than a doctor...he pretty much leads the investigation for all purposes.  Yes, it's a bit of a stretch but Quirke is just that kind of character, one that Black (a pseudonym of author John Banville) writes well. 

Because it takes place in Ireland, there are gorgeous descriptions of country estates, drawing rooms, and endless cups of tea. As in all Black novels, many descriptions of the facets of light and dark, the penumbras of shadow play.  I noticed a new motif in this particular novel-trees are often described extensively and with a sense of purpose to the story.  It's a nice touch that makes the story feel more of a journey than a procedural.

Brit actor Martin Shaw, how I imagine Quirke
 So with all that going for it, it should be better than it is.  Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy the series and the character of Quirke is up there with Wallander for me in terms of crime fiction.  But this one disappointed me in two ways.  First, it introduces a story line about Sinclair, Quirke's assistant, and his possible relationship with Phoebe, Quirke's troubled but plucky daughter.  It's compelling, but it doesn't seem to develop-it drops off completely.  Then, there are the other characters that make up the suspects, and I felt like they were all sort of caricatures-from beginning to end, they never changed in their behavior.  Instead of developing some complexity or depth, they simply remained the same as when the story introduces them. This made predicting and solving the crime fairly easy for the reader.  Usually in a detective story, the underlying rule is 'nothing is as it seems';  yet in this one, yep, it pretty much is exactly how it seems.

And, no spoilers here, but in terms of imagination, the plot of this book has been on every other episode of Law & Order SVU.  Mental illness, homeless children, anti-Semitic hate crimes, and business corruption fill in the blanks, but the basic premise is pretty bland and predictable.  It's still an enjoyable read, as there's something strangely peaceful about the old-school sleuthing that Quirke does. 

Special thanks to Jason Leibman of Henry Holt for the Advance Review Copy. 
This title releases today, 7/5/11.

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