The son of a Dublin newspaper magnate is murdered in a thriller that has everything but a catalyst to set things spinning.
Black (Elegy for April, 2010, etc.), pseudonym for Booker Award winner John Banville, knows what noir thriller fans go for. He spikes events with deliciously nasty wit and sharp, often elegant prose. The exploded remains of a victim’s head, for example, smear a window like “a giant peony blossom, that blotted out most of the view of rolling grasslands stretching off to the horizon.” Black’s investigator, pathologist Garret Quirke, whose problems with women and alcohol qualify him as a valid hard-boiled investigator, has a laser eye for character foibles. So you know if Françoise d’Aubigny, the widow of the murder victim, the widely despised Richard Jewell, hides anything about his murder, it’s certain Quirk (in his fourth case) will spot it. It’s also certain he and the widow, who in profile has “the look of a figure on a pharaoh’s tomb," will have an affair. In due order, a web of suspects is drawn. There’s a gardener, an obnoxious bully; a business associate, Carlton Sumner, a rival to Jewell for “ruthlessness and skuldudgery"; and Jewell’s half-sister Dannie, who murmurs something about “poor orphans,” a clue that hangs inert over the proceedings. These and other characters, including Quirk’s mistress, his assistant and his daughter, are drawn with laser sharpness, but their scenes seldom push the action forward. Matters get moving whenever Quirke starts investigating, but Black keeps him off-scene for long stretches, further stalling cohesion and momentum. The reveal, alas, will probably pop into the reader’s mind before it does onto the page. Dublin, during an uncharacteristic hot spell, offers atmosphere Black never effectively drapes over the proceedings.
The parts are greater than the sum.