'A Death in Summer' Warns Us

Stirring Up the Depths Can Be Fatal

by John L. Murphy

23 June 2011

As before, Quirke manages to unlock yet another grand Irish scheme against the innocent and the defenseless. "Remember," his foe threatens, "the little fish, and the big fish. And the mud at the bottom."
Benjamin Black 
cover art

A Death in Summer

Benjamin Black

(Henry Holt)
US: Jul 2011

Detective Inspector Hackett finds to his disappointment not a murder, but a seeming suicide, but then not one, “for the corpse was holding the gun in his own hands.” The ensuing narrative shows, again, protagonist and pathologist-turned-amateur investigator—that is Hackett’s partner, Quirke—entangled in love, but a bitter, harsh, sulpheric sense of it never goes away.

This novel ties together somewhat with themes of abandonment at an early age, first surfacing in the first of four novels to date written by Irish author John Banville under the Benjamin Black pen-name, Christine Falls. While the newest story can be followed independently, it’s enhanced by familiarity with the motifs of betrayal, deceit, and institutional corruption in the book that introduced Quirke, in dismal ‘50s Ireland.

I liked this as much as previous installments. It lacks the oddly enticing, if fatally faux-exotic whiff that enlivened dreary, postwar Dublin in The Silver Swan, but it continues the relationships opened up in Elegy for April with daughter Phoebe and with Quirke’s new lover. I’d missed coroner’s assistant Sinclair in Elegy but in A Death, he plays a major role. We find out about his past, and about his connections with yet another shadowy association of Ireland’s leading figures in another conspiracy. This familiarity, as it recalls Christine, slightly weakened the impact of similar revelations in A Death. Still, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black satisfies with a solid story.

There was a bit less of the breathtaking prose that always can be found in this writer’s fiction. Characters enter (many from past encounters with Quirke) and their reports, rendered as an indirect voice shifts in Joycean fashion subtly from consciousness to consciousness, move the story of t300 pages along neatly if somewhat schematically. The steady tone rarely departs from a detached, impassive viewpoint.

Many characters sound too often similar, even a French one, a foreign entrant added as in earlier novels to show how the Irish respond or do not respond to outsiders. The situation of the Jewish residents of Ireland is part of the context here, if glanced at more in passing, but again, as with other novels, this attention to a less common vantage point on Irish society deepens Black’s nuanced perspectives.

Responses of the characters convey welcome imagery. Sinclair recalls Phoebe who “looked like nothing much, with that stark little face and the hair clawed back from her face as if it were a punishment that had been imposed on her for an infringement of some religious rule.” The half-sister of that corpse Hackett finds is regarded by Sinclair as if with “the air of a debauched virgin.”

No Banville or Black book I have ever read arrives without a gorgeous passage. Contemplating couples, Quirke “imagined them, hordes of enraptured lovers down the ages, millions upon millions of them, lashing at the poor old globe with the flails of their passion, keeping it awhirl on its wobbly axis like a spinning top. The love that people spoke of so much seemed a kind of miasmic cloud, a kind of ether teeming with bacilli, through which we moved as we moved through the ordinary air, immune to infection for most of the time but destined to succumb sooner or later, somewhere or other, struck down to writhe on our beds in tender torment.”

While I remained less convinced than Quirke of the charms issuing from object of his desire in this installment, that may be my cooler reaction as angled against his chastened one. As before, Quirke manages to unlock yet another grand scheme against the innocent and the defenseless. As his nemesis warns, stirring up the depths of the water can be fatal. “Remember,” his foe threatens, “the little fish, and the big fish. And the mud at the bottom.”

Yeats’ line about “the blood and mire of human veins”, given a nod here, contends against the vision of what Quirke glimpses as he falls in love: “Twin stars of light from some far window glowed in their straw-colored depths.” The pure contends against the profane. Quirke sums up his efforts to his police counterpart in investigation, Hackett: “We haven’t grown up yet, on this tight little island. But we do what we can, you and I. That’s all we can do.”

A Death in Summer


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