The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Benjamin Black (3)

Wednesday
Jun142017

Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on June 6, 2017

When John Banville turns from literary fiction to literary crime fiction, he writes under the name Benjamin Black. Wolf on a String is a medieval crime novel. Benjamin Black’s customary literary prose style is on display, and the story he tells is interesting, although he doesn’t play by the rules that readers might expect a whodunit to follow.

Late on a winter night in 1599, Christian Stern finds the body of a young woman on the streets of Prague. The woman, he soon learns, was the daughter of Dr. Kroll, the emperor’s physician. The young woman was also the Emperor’s mistress. Of course, Stern is assumed to be the murderer.

Stern’s fortunes are reversed after Emperor Rudolf, through his Chamberlain, takes an interest in Stern, who has studied natural philosophy and who, thanks to a dream the Emperor had, is regarded as heaven-sent. With the help of a dwarf, Stern investigates the murder.

So who committed the foul deed? Was it the Emperor’s jealous concubine? Was it the Emperor’s jealous Chamberlain? Was it the dwarf? It falls to Stern to solve the murder … or risk the Emperor’s wrath.

The story is one of medieval conspiracy, as various players plot against the Emperor or each other. The plot is intricate but not unduly confusing. The whodunit is not one the reader will likely solve, however, as key information is revealed from out of the blue (or out of the soot) only at the novel’s end. That might be a drawback for readers who hope to solve the mystery ahead of its resolution. The story is entertaining, however, as much for the setting and characters as for the plot.

As one would expect from a Benjamin Black novel, Stern is a full character occupying a rich world. His chance interaction with Kepler reminds the reader of the difficulty that scientists faced in a world that was intent on clinging to its assumptions (a difficulty that has never been overcome and is particularly relevant today, given the hostility that some politicians feel toward scientists who voice unhappy truths).

Stern also reveals the strengths and frailties of human nature as he deals with attraction/seduction involving a couple of women, including the Emperor’s mistress. As Stern is warned more than once but can’t quite process, he treads on dangerous ground as he pursues both a killer and his own desires.

Other characters are less developed, but this isn’t a long novel, and they have enough personality to bring them to life. The medieval setting seems realistic enough, although the details of Prague and of the lives of its inhabitants at the end of the sixteenth century are a bit hazy. Still, the novel isn’t meant to be an historical treatise. It works well enough as a medieval crime and conspiracy story to warrant my recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jan132016

Even the Dead by Benjamin Black

Published in Great Britain in 2015; published by Henry Holt and Co. on January 12, 2016

Quirke begins Even the Dead on extended sick leave, suffering from hallucinations and forgetfulness that, according to his brain specialist, are caused by stress and boredom, as well as an old scar on his temporal lobe. Quirke is a composite of old scars; that a scar explains his current predicament is no surprise to him. Yet Quirke’s lethargy, his indifference to life, seems to him not to be caused by brain damage but by life damage -- he has the sense that something has “gone out,” that his life is over and done, or never began.

Quirke’s assistant, David Sinclair, who happens to be dating Quirke’s daughter, solicits Quirke’s opinion concerning a suspicious bruise on the corpse of a man who is believed to have committed suicide. The suspected murder victim is the son of a well-known scofflaw, the kind of man who “makes a point of being awkward.” Eventually Quirke takes an interest and tags along with his friend, Inspector Hackett, as the death is investigated.

Meanwhile, Quirke’s daughter is asked to help a former classmate who is fleeing from a menace she refuses to identify. The menace, of course, is related to the death that Quirke is investigating. That might seem like an unlikely coincidence but Dublin isn’t huge and the coincidence is therefore not so improbable as to hurt the story’s credibility.

The deceased is a young civil servant, an unlikely candidate for murder. Benjamin Black develops the mystery slowly, dangling potential motives for the reader to consider. The novel features a return to Mother of Mercy Laundry, which played a key role in a couple of earlier novels in the series.

While the story is built upon a murder mystery, the plot is secondary to Quirke’s plotless, aimless life. Although “a stranger to himself,” Quirke is an introspective man, a thinker who can’t quite make sense of his existence. To say Quirke has been a disappointing father would be to understate, but Black does not cheat the father-daughter relationship of its complexity. All of Quirke’s relationships are ambiguous and complex, despite Quirke’s efforts to keep them at a comfortably superficial level.

As a pathologist, Quirke is used to confronting death, but in these novels, he often confronts the deaths (or impending death) of people he knows. Even the Dead is no exception. Yet for all his melancholy and sense of mortality, there are glimmers of happiness and hope in Quirke’s life during the course of the novel. Rebirth or a fresh start would be unrealistic in Quirke’s gloomy world, but Black seems to suggest that even the gravely burdened might find a sort of renewal as their lives progress.

Quirke lives in a world where the rich and powerful can do as they please, without consequence. In other words, he lives in the real world, rather than a fictional world where justice always prevails. The murder mystery and its byproducts resolve in a straightforward way; whether the resolution represents justice must be left to the reader’s judgment.

Black’s prose is, as always, elegant. The lives of Quirke and other characters evolve in Even the Dead -- Quirke most of all -- as lives should in the hands of a capable writer. I don’t know if this is meant to be the last Quirke novel, but it ties up story threads so deftly that it reads as if it might be.

This isn’t an action novel or a suspenseful thriller, but the story moves quickly. Even the Dead doesn’t feature the best plot in the Quirke series but it is sufficiently sturdy to carry a work of character-driven fiction.

RECOMMENDED

Tuesday
Jun142011

A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on July 5, 2011

Richard "Diamond Dick" Jewell, a wealthy businessman, stable owner, newspaper publisher, and orphanage sponsor, is dead at his desk, his head blown off. He is found "clutching a shotgun in his bloodless hands," an obvious attempt to disguise a murder as suicide. Detective Inspector Hackett is joined at the crime scene by his friend Dr. Quirke, filling in for the government's pathologist, who has been rendered unavailable by a heart attack. The initial suspects include Jewell's sophisticated French wife, Françoise d'Aubigny, who doesn't seem overly distressed at his demise; Maguire, the yard manager who was convicted of a violent crime many years earlier; the arrogant Carlton Sumner, a rival businessman with whom Jewell had recently quarreled; and Sumner's son Teddy. Jewell and Carlton Sumner are also linked by Sumner's maid, Marie Bergin, who once worked for Jewell. Another link -- one that appears to join all the suspects -- is St. Christopher's orphanage. Quirke is also linked to St. Christopher's, having resided there during some of his childhood.

Quirke is quite taken with Françoise, particularly when she invites him to lunch to discuss her husband's death. The lunch is probably inappropriate given Quirke's romantic (or at least physical) involvement with Isabel Galloway; it's even less appropriate that he later becomes intimate with Françoise. It's sometimes difficult to understand what motivates Quirke -- why, for instance, would he accept an invitation from Giselle, Françoise's nine-year-old daughter, to see her bedroom during Richard's wake? -- other than to note that Quirke often views the world through an alcohol-induced haze and seems to move passively through his life without giving anything (except the mystery at hand) a great deal of thought.

A subplot has Quirke's assistant, Sinclair (an ambitious lad who wants Quirke's job), spending time with (if not quite dating) Sinclair's daughter Phoebe (whose status as his daughter Quirke long denied before acknowledging its reality). Sinclair happens to be a friend of Jewell's sister Dannie, a relationship that leads Dannie and Phoebe to meet and bond. Sinclair has a knack for collecting damaged women who want to use him as a therapist (and nothing else) -- the price he regretfully pays for being a nice guy. At a later point in the story, Sinclair plays a deeper role in the mystery after receiving anti-Semitic threats (and worse).

Benjamin Black (the pen name of Irish novelist John Banville) writes in an elegant style that befits a literary mystery. There are shades of noir in the story but Black gives his characters greater depth than is typical of noir fiction. The plot is tight and easy to follow but the solution to the mystery is less than obvious. Black supplies a nice bit of misdirection toward the end. On the other hand, this isn't a traditional mystery, in which the reader can play detective, picking out clues and trying to puzzle out the solution alongside the fictional crime-solver. There are subtle clues to the killer's motivation, but a reader who guesses the killer's identity will, I think, be doing just that: guessing.

While not a conventional mystery, the story is nonetheless strong, notable for its collection of troubled characters more than its plot. The story moves at a comfortable pace, neither frenzied nor languid. Black creates dramatic tension in small ways; scenes of violence, for the most part, take place offstage, leaving details to the reader's imagination. Black leaves no loose ends; the story proceeds to a skillful conclusion.  This fine novel made me a fan of Quirke; now I need to find time to read the first three books in the series.

RECOMMENDED