Whether he’s writing as Black or under his own name, Banville knows that the past pervades the present, that the human...

THE SILVER SWAN

From the Quirke series , Vol. 2

Graham Greene made a distinction between his literary endeavors and the trifles he called “entertainments.” Some fans may wonder why he bothered: Entertainments such as The Third Man, though not in the league with, say, The Heart of the Matter, rank with his most popularly enduring work.

John Banville has taken the distinction a leap farther, establishing a new identity for himself as Benjamin Black, a writer of stylish mystery thrillers separate from his literary work, such as the Booker-winning The Sea (2005). Christine Falls (2007), the debut by Black, reached a readership that might have had no acquaintance with Banville’s previous novels, though the author otherwise has made no attempt to disguise his identity. The book jacket—complete with photo—informs that “Benjamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed author John Banville.” Now Black is back a year later with The Silver Swan. The follow-up is a more compelling mystery than its highly praised predecessor, but it depends on familiarity with that earlier book for full enjoyment. The protagonist again is a Dublin pathologist named Quirke, a character who isn’t exactly a hero and is certainly no detective—he’s as clueless as he is curious. In fact, Quirke is something of a mystery, certainly to the reader, likely to himself. Much has changed. Quirke no longer drinks, he has lost the love of his life and he is estranged from the daughter who was far more affectionate toward him before she knew Quirke was her father. Again, Quirke finds his curiosity piqued by the corpse of a young woman. Again, Quirke feels like he has stumbled upon a secret concerning her death, only to discover that he has it all wrong. Among the differences between Black’s novels and Banville’s is that the former have more dialogue and, particularly in The Silver Swan, more sex—tawdry rather than titillating. Though Black writes some beautiful sentences and seems in love with the sound of words, his style lacks the almost Joycean rapture that some critics of Banville find excessive. Banville plainly enjoys writing the Black novels, and it will be interesting to see whether the style of the mysteries begins to influence his more literary work. For the distinction might well be an arbitrary one. Long after Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler transcended the stigma of generic pulp for literary legitimacy, novelists such as Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and the underrated David Lindsey continue to obliterate the line between mystery and literature. And the greatest of all mystery writers could well be Dostoevsky.

Whether he’s writing as Black or under his own name, Banville knows that the past pervades the present, that the human condition is the ultimate mystery. And that death is either a period or a question mark.

Pub Date: March 4, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-8050-8153-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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A suspenseful, professional-grade north country procedural whose heroine, a deft mix of compassion and attitude, would be...

BADLANDS

Box takes another break from his highly successful Joe Pickett series (Stone Cold, 2014, etc.) for a stand-alone about a police detective, a developmentally delayed boy, and a package everyone in North Dakota wants to grab.

Cassandra Dewell can’t leave Montana’s Lewis and Clark County fast enough for her new job as chief investigator for Jon Kirkbride, sheriff of Bakken County. She leaves behind no memories worth keeping: her husband is dead, her boss has made no bones about disliking her, and she’s looking forward to new responsibilities and the higher salary underwritten by North Dakota’s sudden oil boom. But Bakken County has its own issues. For one thing, it’s cold—a whole lot colder than the coldest weather Cassie’s ever imagined. For another, the job she turns out to have been hired for—leading an investigation her new boss doesn’t feel he can entrust to his own force—makes her queasy. The biggest problem, though, is one she doesn’t know about until it slaps her in the face. A fatal car accident that was anything but accidental has jarred loose a stash of methamphetamines and cash that’s become the center of a battle between the Sons of Freedom, Bakken County’s traditional drug sellers, and MS-13, the Salvadorian upstarts who are muscling in on their territory. It’s a setup that leaves scant room for law enforcement officers or for Kyle Westergaard, the 12-year-old paperboy damaged since birth by fetal alcohol syndrome, who’s walked away from the wreck with a prize all too many people would kill for.

A suspenseful, professional-grade north country procedural whose heroine, a deft mix of compassion and attitude, would be welcome to return and tie up the gaping loose end Box leaves. The unrelenting cold makes this the perfect beach read.

Pub Date: July 28, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-58321-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Minotaur

Review Posted Online: April 22, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

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