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Category Archive for 'Mystery, Thriller, Noir'

For the past ten years, award-winning Irish author John Banville has been writing crime novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black, in addition to his literary fiction under his own name. Seven of these novels feature an alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin named Quirke. Quirke has had a sad life from his earliest years, having spent time in an orphanage before he was unofficially adopted by Judge Garret Griffin, and brought into his household to live with his adoptive brother Malachi Griffin, who also became a physician in later life. In his mid-forties when he appears in Christine Falls, the first novel in the series, Quirke has never come to terms with who he is because he does not know who he is. Now many years later, his past is still largely a mystery to him. As this novel opens, Quirke, the chief of the pathology lab of , has been on a leave of absence from the Hospital of the Holy Family, receiving treatment for his alcohol addiction and related emotional problems. When an accident occurs and the pathologist performing the autopsy has questions, he comes to Quirke for help, and Quirke leaves his house for the first time in over two months to meet Hackett, his friend in the police. Though it is easy to speed through these introductory pages in an effort to get to the plot, it is the information which Quirke learns about himself and his condition which deserves the most attention, especially at the beginning. Many revelations throughout this book, and many questions from the past answered.

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NOTE: The second of the “Quirke series” by Benjamin Black (the pen name for renowned author John Banville), The Silver Swan (2008) follows Christine Falls (2007). At present (January, 2017) there are seven Quirke novels in this series, which is set in the 1950s. Quirke’s complex personal story unfolds very slowly in the background during these seven novels, some of it especially important to understanding him, though it is referenced, but not usually explained, in subsequent novels. I am therefore reposting these early reviews because they introduce key information in Quirke’s life, important to know in later novels, including Even the Dead, published on Jan. 3, 2017 and to be reviewed here this week.

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NOTE: This novel, published in 2007, is the first of a series of mystery novels written by award-winning author John Banville, under the pen name of Benjamin Black, and set in the 1950s. Because seven of the novels in the current series all feature the same main character, Quirke, whose life gradually opens to the reader during the series, I am re-posting this early review from 2007 and, to come, a review of The Silver Swan from 2008, which help to explain the complex background of Quirke as we see him in his new novel, Even the Dead, just released and soon to be reviewed here.

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In his first Detective Erlendur novel to be published in English since 2012, Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason provides a “prequel” to the entire series, now numbering six novels, and flashes back to establish some of Erlandur’s background, personality, and past history at a time when Erlendur is still in his twenties. In Reykjavik Nights Erlendur has just started working for the Reykjavik police, on the night shift, with two young law students who are working part-time for the summer, and he himself is considering whether to take classes at nearby Hamrahlid College which offers adult education classes. Most of his night-time duties consist of breaking up fights, arresting drunks, attending to the victims of automobile accidents, and reporting more serious events – sudden deaths and disappearances – some of which intrigue Erlendur enough that he follows up, unofficially, on his own. Though he does not consider himself “nocturnal,” he does not object to the night duty, having become “reconciled to the city, when its streets were finally quiet with no sound but the wind and the low chugging of the engine” of the van. A loner who has never established strong connections with his peers, and who seems to have no family, Erlendur makes few commitments, a characteristic which becomes even more dramatic in the novels of his later life in which he is almost pathologically solitary, reflecting his grim vision of reality and even grimmer vision of mankind. As is always the case with Indridason’s novels, he keeps the style clear and sometimes terse, but in this novel, he makes Erlendur more human. By isolating Erlendur from the family he eventually has in the later novels, it is possible to see Erlendur as a person who cares about others when he does not have the family distractions which complicate his life twenty years later.

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“The Alligator’s” metaphorical description of northeast Italy, especially the area around Padua, comes so vividly to life in his series of Mediterranean Noir novels that the reader might be excused for wondering how author Massimo Carlotto obtained his inside knowledge of crime and criminals. His writing feels real. His thoughts on the judicial system in Italy feel far more sophisticated and far more complex than what one would normally expect to see in a popular mystery series. His own views of what constitutes “justice,” if his main character Marco Buratti, “the Alligator,” can be considered his “voice,” are more “flexible” than those of any other author I can recall reading. At one point in this novel, Buratti, who works as an unlicensed private investigator, comments that “you can’t leave someone alive if he might decide without warning to pump you full of lead or else hire someone else to do it for him.” He adds that “in the underworld, when situations arise that threaten to end in a bloodbath, the thing to do, if possible, is to arrange for negotiations that will at least limit the number of corpses.” In this novel, like the others in the series, Carlotto features main character Marco Buratti, who, with two partners, undertakes very private investigations in which he must rely on formation from informants and from people friendly to him in the underworld. He cannot go to the police – he is an ex-con and unlicensed – and his partners became his friends when he was in prison. There is no absolute concept of right or wrong in Carlotto’s novels. Justice is what works in a given situation and leaves the greatest number of good people safe, the greatest number of most hateful people, punished. As Buratti says, “Improvisation only makes sense in jazz.”

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