Another breezy read in the mystery series by a Dublin novelist whose more literary work is often considered “difficult.”
The prolific alter ego of the masterful, Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville, Black takes it easy on himself and his readers with this fifth volume in a mystery series featuring the inscrutable Quirke, who is not a detective, but a pathologist and who here is less a protagonist than a supporting character. The plot’s riddle isn’t whodunit, but why. It entangles two families, headed by business partners who are the sons of business partners, though one of the families has long decidedly held the upper hand. Victor Delahaye, the dominant partner, takes a resistant Davy Clancy, son of the resentful secondary partner, out for a day’s sail. While in the middle of the sea, under a scorching sun, Victor proceeds to relate an inscrutable parable to Davy about growing up independent, then commits suicide by shooting himself in the chest, leaving a particularly bloody corpse. In some respects, this is surprisingly similar to the previous novel in the series (A Death in Summer, 2011), which also concerned a mysterious suicide by a financial magnate that leads to Quirke’s involvement with the widow. There really isn’t much action after that fatal first chapter, as Black explores the possible manipulations of a bunch of peculiar and suspicious characters. Did Victor’s womanizing partner (and Davy’s father) play a part in the death? How about his insidiously eerie twin sons (and the seductive girlfriend of one)? His promiscuous and much younger widow? His mentally unbalanced sister? Davy’s mother? Davy? Though the novel makes some fun of mystery novels that arrive at an impossibly neat resolution, moving its characters like chess pieces, the suspense here proceeds to a climax that untangles all loose ends. Along the way, there’s the pleasure of Black’s prose, of the “sudden sweet pang for the lost past, all those possibilities long gone, never to be offered again.”
Quirke remains a compelling mystery, perhaps to himself most of all, but initiates might better read these novels in order rather than starting here.