Subtle as a stiletto


Benjamin Black

Mantle, €16.50;

ebook, €10

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Victor Delahaye and Jack Clancy are uneasy second-generation partners in a thriving motor and shipping business, but it is not only success that has bred contempt into their relationship.

As Protestant gentry, the Delahayes have always called the shots, treating the Catholic Clancys as subservient muscle. But a cusp has been reached.

When Delahaye coaxes Jack’s son Davy out on a boat off the Slievemore coast and promptly commits suicide with a shot to the chest, nobody suspects the younger Clancy of foul play. But why would Delahaye kill himself? And, more pertinently, why arrange to have a witness present? Things aren’t right, and the few facts that emerge only serve to raise more questions.

And then a week later, Jack Clancy, whose secret attempt at a shares’ swoop has been uncovered, is found drowned in Dublin bay.

Apart from a wound to the back of Clancy’s head which may or may not have been sustained accidentally, neither post mortem reveals anything particularly suspicious. But the coincidence bothers Detective Inspector Hackett and sometime advisor, the world-weary State Pathologist, Quirke. Together they find a mess of upper-class domesticity, marked by greed, infidelity and familial rivalries.

Among the Clancys, there is the newly widowed Sylvia, a put-upon type with a genteel English accent who has for years borne her husband’s philandering ways, and the spoilt son, Davy, a childish, dangerously good looking young man.

And across the divide, we have the patriarchal Samuel Delahaye, crippled and decrepit now but still capable of rage; the spinster sister, Marguerite, or Maggie, a peculiar keeper of secrets; the beautiful and promiscuous South African-born second wife, Mona, who feigns stupidity as a survival technique; and the inseparable identical twins, James and Jonas, who exude such calculated cruelty. Hackett and Quirke must manoeuvre these main players like pieces on a chess board, in the hope that the mists of confusion will clear and a readable pattern of truth emerge.

These Quirke books are unfairly considered by some to be throwaway fare, minor notes in Banville’s considerable oeuvre. But as a professed admirer of Belgian crime novelist, Georges Simenon’s the influence at least in a spiritual sense is obvious.

Writing from within a genre naturally confines the author to certain stereotypes, and while it is true that the Quirke series lacks the depth and gravitas, and indeed the linguistic pyrotechnics, of a Banville novel, Benjamin Black seems to create his own limited freedoms. The plot of Vengeance is captivating.

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