Philip Davison, review of Vengeance, by Benjamin Black, in The Irish Times (16 June 2012), Weekend review, p.10.

[Source: The Irish Times - online.]

The covertly humane, melancholic pathologist Dr Quirke is adjunct to the cunning Det Insp Hackett, who gives a good impression of doing little to investigate crime. It is not the dead who trouble these men but the living.

Quirke and Hackett are solitary beings, mutually respectful, ever conscious of keeping a measured distance from each other, whatever the nature of their collaboration. Both are properly addicted to science and logic – there is always a thread of logic to be grasped – but they are also well placed to recognise the power and the weight of disaffection, and that is important in the reckoning of this mysterious case. They must take in the terrible consequences of unbridled jealousy, thwarted desire and inflated pride. They are not easily surprised by the carelessness that so often is the mark of cruelty. Nor do they baulk at human cupidity and deceit.

The novel opens with Victor Delahaye taking Davy, son of his business partner, Jack Clancy, out sailing. It’s a perfect day to be on the water, but Davy, a boy child of 24, is uncomfortable. He doesn’t like being in a boat, doesn’t know why he’s there. This is the Ireland of the 1950s. The Protestant Delahayes and the Catholic Clancys are formidable rival families. There exists between them an unequal business partnership built over two generations, with a third set to take over. They own garages. They ship coal and timber. The incumbent partners are shrewd men. They recognise their complementary skills and fully exploit them. The ruthlessness engendered by their antipathy towards each other has made a strong contribution to the success of their joint business venture. The philandering Jack – the small boss – though he despises Victor Delahaye, is more interested in playing at love with his mistresses, as Sylvia, his English wife, later tells Quirke. Jack will proceed regardless, it would appear, his sense of excitement, envy and sweet regret unimpeded. No amount of infidelity, boardroom chicanery or jealousy can stand in the way of profit, or so it would appear. These are resilient people, well versed in staying the course and concealing their vulnerability.

The women, in particular, must have their strategies. Sylvia hides behind a shield of impenetrable politeness. Mona, Victor Delahaye’s second wife, pretends to be stupid. Maggie, Victor’s sister, seems lost and self-deluded.

In the boat on that lovely summer’s day, Victor tells Davy his own father was “a great one for self-reliance. Self-reliance and loyalty. ‘A man is not much if he can’t depend on himself,’ he used to say, ‘and nothing if others can’t depend on him.’ Do you talk to your father?” Victor demands. Davy’s answer is lame. Victor tells a story from childhood. He gives an account of his father driving across the city, stopping the car to let him buy an ice-cream wafer in a corner shop, whereupon his father abandons him.

“Funny feeling, I remember it, as if the bottom had fallen out of my stomach . . .” He didn’t cry, he tells Davy. He went back into the shop, told the shopkeeper his daddy had gone away and left him. The shopkeeper gave him a sweet. When, eventually, his father did appear, Victor concludes, the shopkeeper got a pound for his trouble. You got a sweet out of it, didn’t you, his father declared. “The most important thing – that I didn’t cry.”

Where does loyalty figure in this lesson, Victor asks Davy. Again, Davy’s response is vague. Victor produces a gun. “I’d send you for an ice cream, if there were any shops,” he says, as they drift in their boat. Then he turns the pistol on himself and shoots himself dead. Thematically, this poignant story of the boy and his ice cream wafer is significant in what is to follow.

The challenge of credibly placing Quirke, a pathologist, in the role of sometime investigator is met by virtue of his brooding personality. He’s a man who savours slightly illicit occasions, such as meeting the mistress of the deceased. His professional circumstances, too, give him the proximity, and his friendship with Hackett gives him access. It is important, too, that he should be somewhat out of his depth. Phoebe, Quirke’s daughter, has a connection to Jonas and James, the privileged Delahaye twins, who come under suspicion. She has been to a party with them, has shared the charred bangers and sliced pan, the brown paper bags of stout.

As the fearsome and babyish press lizard Jimmy Minor observes for Hackett’s benefit, everything doesn’t get explained. The story is engaging. Instinctively, the reader knows what to expect, and still is surprised. The liquid precision of the writing presents convincing characters. It renders the drama of their lives as strangely matter-of-fact while fully illuminating the forces at work. We are deftly led through a complex entanglement of charged but often spent relationships. There is a blunt empathy with the principal characters that is curiously affecting. Effortlessly, it would seem, and never wanting, Banville’s description of the physical world is superb.

Vengeance is the fifth novel in the Quirke Dublin series by John Banville, writing under the pen name Benjamin Black. It is a pleasure to read.

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