Foolishly, I disagreed with David L. Ulin about a book. Specifically, this book, which Ulin panned in a recent review. I set out immediately to read it… and I didn’t like it either. Although, in my defense, I disliked it for different reasons than Ulin.
My only previous experience with Benjamin Black, the crime-writing pseudonym of John Banville, was the novel A Death in Summer, which I found to be excellent. Summer had little tension, but what Ulin might call its “propulsive style” captivated me.
Going into Vengeance, I was expecting more of the same, i.e. not much plot but expansive, immersive prose (which is the formula Ulin complains about). Unfortunately, Black’s prose was not nearly as enjoyable as in Summer, and that was what let me down.
Quirke, our hero, appears in about a quarter of the book’s pages. The rest gets divided up between Quirke’s family and friends, his partner-of-sorts, Inspector Hackett, and the suspects and relations of the murder victim. (Actually, he’s a suicide victim, which contributes to the problem of lackluster mystery. Suicides are inherently less interesting than murders because suicides all happen for more or less the same reason.)
Here’s a passage describing Quirke’s birthday that’s representative of Black’s not-quite-sublime prose:
Quirke had no birthday. He had been an orphan… He knew his age more or less, though he did not know how he knew it. … It was just there, an accumulating number, as meaningless as any other, and as lacking in significance for him. Each New Year’s Day he took down mentally another used-up calendar from his inner wall, and lifted a glass in a sardonic toast to himself.
It’s not as poor as most mystery writers, obviously, but it’s not good enough or insightful enough to occupy my full attention. Which means that I paid attention somewhat to the mystery, and the mystery can’t hold very much attention.
Black is not a traditional mystery writer. He has no knack for intricate plots or nail-biting tension, so when you are not distracted by lovely prose, he can be quite irritating to read.
For example, the central crime to the story at hand involves two families, the Delahayes and the Clancys. They’ve been business partners for years, and the Clancys have always been subservient to the Delahayes. Then, one day, 46-year-old Victor Delahaye takes 25-year-old Davy Clancy out on a sailboat. Victor tells an odd story and shoots himself in the chest. Davy immediately panics and throws the gun into the water, and then almost dies getting back because he doesn’t know how to sail.
This is a promising start, if not a great one. But as soon as Quirke and Hackett show up, they defuse all the tension of the scene by believing Davy when he tells them that Victor shot himself. The mystery trundles along for a little while, introducing us to a cast of sour, unlikeable Delahayes and Clancys. Hackett eventually zeros in on a suspect because, he says, “a lifetime of experience told him so.”
And he’s right, but they plod along for another hundred pages before finally solving it in a swoop. The switching perspectives also mean that we’ve spent time in the head of the evil mastermind, but that person conveniently didn’t think any thoughts that might’ve tipped us off. And that’s a really cheap trick.
All in all, I can’t call this an entirely wasted read—there are certainly gems here and there—but when Black’s prose is not his best, his plots leave a whole lot to be desired.