John Banville, when he’s not winning the Man Booker Prize and other literary hosannas, has become one of the world’s great mystery men. You might know him better in that vein by his pen name — Benjamin Black, author of four previous Dublin novels featuring the aptly named Quirke, a forensics specialist often enlisted by the Dublin police force in the 1950s.
A depressive man of uncontrollable appetites for women (mostly of the fatale variety), wine (and anything else with an elevated alcohol content), and food (the unhealthier the better), Quirke’s swagger doesn’t take a back seat to any fictional investigator’s out there. And Black’s literary style doesn’t take a back seat to any other mystery writer out there with the possible exception of Ruth Rendell.
Coincidentally, Black and Rendell both have new books out, Black with “Vengeance” and Rendell with “The St. Zita Society,” though Rendell is so prolific she always seems to have a new book out, sometimes under her pen name of Barbara Vine. To add to his bona fides, Black/Banville also made news recently by signing up with the Raymond Chandler estate to write a new Philip Marlowe book.
Black and Rendell both create worlds that their fans lust to spend time in, as do all mystery writers. What makes Black and Rendell more artful is that the worlds they create also have something to say about our world. Both are sharp observers of the darker recesses of class clashes across the pond, a big issue in both their new books. Rendell, along with the late Patricia Highsmith, is justly praised as a pioneer of the psychological mystery novel. Black is no slouch at investigating the darker recesses himself.
And in both, storytelling technique trumps detecting technique. You enter these worlds to partake of the authorial vision of the human parade, not because the murders are particularly grisly, the perpetrator so maniacal or difficult to guess, the denouement so tension-filled.
None of those book-selling niceties are on display in “Vengeance.” A successful businessman takes his partner’s lower-born son aboard his boat, pours out his sadness to the young man, takes out a gun and shoots himself. Quirke, whose upbringing allows him to navigate the Irish class structure, is called in to help with the investigation, and eventually figures out the shenanigans that led to this death and a later murder.
It’s not as good or issue-oriented as the two best in the series, “Christine Falls” and “A Death in Summer” — the actions of one or two of the main characters aren’t particularly believable — but it’s still a delicious read. Here’s a father and son — the lower-born partners — at the funeral of the suicide:
Jack Clancy was dragging on a cigarette as if he was suffocating and it was a little tube of oxygen. His son, looking more than ever like a bantamweight contender, was frowning at the sky, as if wistfully expecting something to swoop down out of it and carry him off to somewhere less grim than this balefully sunlit churchyard.
Black describes Ireland with as much detail as he does the Irish. What’s missing here, and in some of the other Quirke books, is a sense of time. You’re forced to remind yourself that the events are happening half a century ago. Part of that is because Black’s characters are timeless, but part of it is his neglect of period detail. No matter. Quirke and his friends and his enemies make for great company. Black is to mysteries what Guinness is to beer — rich, complex, satisfying.
Rendell, meanwhile, has taken to writing Altmanesque books that shift quickly from one character to another without a real central protagonist. It’s a device that usually works beautifully for Rendell, allowing her to survey the new multiculturalism of London with more than a touch of humor worked into the occasional horror.
She’s also as masterful as anyone in any genre of British literature at limning the class differences of her country, evoking little sympathy for the rich or sentimentality for the poor. Each class carries its baggage and Rendell delights in exposing their dirty underwear. Tastefully, of course.
“The St. Zita Society,” in that sense, is the perfect wedding of her new style and her old concerns with class as she focuses on a rich London street that still has an “Upstairs/Downstairs” quality to it. The society is actually a gathering of the servants — drivers, gardeners, au pairs, etc. — who meet regularly at a pub to compare the injustices and other issues of their lives outside of England’s one percent. (St. Zita is the patron saint of domestic servants.) It’s a wonderful stew as far as it goes, but I wish Rendell had gone further and taken a little more time to make those class differences as integral to the story as she has in previous books — notably “A Judgement in Stone” or a more recent multicultural affair, “Tigerlily’s Orchids.”
Still, the Pinteresque power plays that result when one of the servants helps one of the masters get away with murder, the clash between swinging London and Muslim morality, the psychopath who thinks the automated voice on his phone is his guardian angel, make for a good, Rendellian time. Even when the story isn’t hi-test, the literary miles per gallon sets an industry standard.