The Quirke series by Benjamin Black --- a pseudonym for John Banville, who himself has been in the literary news recently --- has rapidly become one of my favorites. Quirke, a Dublin pathologist who fights a losing battle with alcoholism (to some extent because he enters the battle half-heartedly), and Detective Inspector Hackett make for a comfortable, not-so-odd couple whose separate disciplines complement each other nicely. VENGEANCE, the latest book in the series, begins with a puzzling and intriguing incident, moves on to introduce a host of unforgettable and (mostly) unlikable characters, and proceeds along a very suspenseful and increasingly mystifying path before reaching a satisfactory and plausible conclusion.
"VENGEANCE...introduce[s] a host of unforgettable and (mostly) unlikable characters, and proceeds along a very suspenseful and increasingly mystifying path before reaching a satisfactory and plausible conclusion."
That intriguing incident involves Victor Delahaye, an extremely successful and powerful Irish businessman who is in partnership with Jack Clancy. Supposedly equal though anything but, Delahaye rules the roost while Clancy plays second fiddle, in no small part due to his predilections with gambling and womanizing, much to the all-too-silent regret of his long-suffering wife. So it is that Delahaye suggests a day of sailing with himself and Clancy’s son, Davy. This is an odd suggestion (to say the least) for Davy, who, like Sir Patrick Spens of yore, has never been a very good seaman and is barely able to keep his nautical terms straight. Things go almost immediately from bad to worse when, while out on the sea, Delahaye tells Davy a bizarre story from his childhood, pulls a gun out of his jacket, and fatally shoots himself. Panicked and at his wits’ end, Davy throws the gun overboard.
When Davy, the boat and the body are eventually recovered, the authorities (with a bit of requisite skepticism) come to believe Davy’s somewhat implausible yet true story, but are left with another question: Why would this successful businessman, with apparently every reason to live, kill himself and in such a manner? Hackett is assigned to the investigation and drags Quirke into it as well. They encounter an intriguing tableau of pseudo-mourners, including Delahaye’s young widow, who seems more studied than sorry in her contemplation of her husband’s death, and his twin sons, who appear to be unaffected by the tragic news. Davy’s mother is most concerned about the trauma visited upon her son as a result of the incident, and as for Clancy Senior, he is still feeling the effects of an afternoon of drinking and gambling. The only person who seems to genuinely mourn Delahaye’s passing is Maggie, his spinster sister.
Quirke and Hackett realize that they must proceed carefully, given the victim’s prestige in the business community, and are moving slowly through the potential minefield that such an investigation creates when a second death occurs that is even more shocking that Delahaye’s. It becomes evident that someone is targeting the upper crust of Dublin’s business community, threatening to destroy their reputations at the least and their lives at worst. VENGEANCE thus becomes a whodunit and, even more significantly, a howdunit. Black skillfully leads his readers through a complex but entertaining and intriguing thicket that will have struck Quirke particularly close to home before matters are concluded.
Black’s pacing is perfect. While he is never in a particular hurry, one does not get the sense that matters are delayed by story padding or extraneous phrasing. Indeed, every word and conversation counts in Black’s world, a state of affairs that is especially true here. While his alter ego may be newsworthy at this point in time, it's VENGEANCE that should be on your reading list, and for all the right reasons.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 17, 2012