No one heard the shot that hot summer afternoon. Not until the field manager went to the office of his boss, newspaper bigwig Richard Jewell, did anyone even know he was dead. He was across his desk "…with a bit of jawbone and a few teeth and a bloodied stump of spine, all that was left of what had been his head." In his hands he was holding onto one of his many shotguns. Would any of his enemies, who called him “Diamond Dick,” have the temerity to blow his head off? Or did he commit suicide? This is the conundrum facing Detective Inspector Hackett. Once he sees the scene and the questions begin to be asked, he calls in pathologist Garret Quirke, who has a penchant for trying to unravel unusual circumstances.
"Black throws around red herrings, leads readers down back alleys and to beautiful, lush estates, but at times readers know more about what is going on than either Quirke or Hackett."
A DEATH IN SUMMER is written by Benjamin Black, the alter ego of master writer John Banville. This is his fourth novel featuring Dr. Quirke and is as mysterious as his earlier ones. Here, Hackett and Quirke are trying to unravel the case, which is complicated and, in some instances, just plain creepy. A number of subjects emerge as possible killers, but not until the surprising end do readers finally get the real scoop and its ramifications.
Black throws around red herrings, leads readers down back alleys and to beautiful, lush estates, but at times readers know more about what is going on than either Quirke or Hackett. The narrative takes place about 10 years after World War II in the Dublin during the mid-’50s, when memories of the war were still fresh. As it happens, Jewell was Jewish; while he was not a religious man, the team wonders if this played a part in his death. Three of the main characters suspected of the killing are the widow, Francois; the groundsman who found him; and a rival who wants to take over Jewell’s newspaper empire. Others play secondary roles, and there are enough of them to muddy the waters of the investigation.
From Quirke’s assistant getting beaten up to Jewell’s sister either having a real nervous breakdown or mimicking one perfectly, the perfidy is almost non-stop. Add to this an orphanage where Quirke spent too many years of his childhood. This grave facility was also home to some of the current players. Thus Quirke is not the only one who takes center stage in this part about past lives. The institution took both boys and girls and was called “the Cage” by the “inmates.” The experiences these children had there are forever responsible for helping to mold who they became as adults, both good and bad.
Whether writing his noir novels or straight fiction, Benjamin Black/John Banville is one of the finest wordsmiths of our day. Nowhere will readers find misleading prose or anything but well-honed characters and superb dialogue that make sense. His tight plots raise suspense to a new level, and the exercise of separating the wrong turns from the real clues can be a pleasurable experience for his fans, as well as new readers.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on August 12, 2011