Review: 'Vengeance' by Benjamin Black has little at stake

Review: 'Vengeance' by Benjamin Black has little at stake
Author Benjamin Black is the alter ego of author John Banville. (Barry McCall / Henry Holt)

A Novel


Benjamin Black
Henry Holt: 307 pp., $26

I've always been a little suspicious of Benjamin Black. Or, more precisely, of the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" aspect of his identity. Black, after all, is that most unwieldy type of pseudonym, the pseudonym everybody knows. Created by Man Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville in 2007 for his first crime novel, "Christine Falls," he himself is a fictional character — except not really, since Banville has never fleshed him out.

Black's bio is Banville's bio, his face Banville's face. There are good reasons to invent a literary alter ego: Stephen King did so with Richard Bachman because he was writing too much to publish under his name alone, and Donald Westlake developed Richard Stark to distinguish his darkly existential Parker books from the lighter crime novels for which he was known. Banville, however, has never really made an equivalent case.

Yes, his own novels are slow, word-drenched stories in which plot is secondary to the flow of language, while his work as Black, composed more quickly, is driven by narrative. Still, despite his contention that "Benjamin Black and John Banville are two entirely different writers," I can't help feeling a contrivance at work here, as if in the creation of a public pen name, Banville is trying to have it both ways.

Contrivance, it turns out, is at the heart of Banville's sixth Black novel, "Vengeance," but that doesn't mean the book's not enjoyable. It is: It will keep you turning pages — although it also comes off as oddly empty, as if some essential aspect had been left unfulfilled. Like four of the previous Black novels, "Vengeance" takes place in 1950s Dublin and revolves around the mercurial pathologist Dr. Quirke. This is Banville's detective hero, an alcoholic whose back-and-forth dance with sobriety makes for its own narrative momentum, a loner equally prone to inner darkness and the pleasures of the flesh.

Quirke doesn't appear until the third chapter of "Vengeance," more than 40 pages in. It's a nifty sleight of hand, a bit of indirection that confounds our sense of how a story such as this one is supposed to work. What's a detective novel without a detective? What's a crime novel without someone to solve the crime? Until we meet Quirke, tracked down in a pub by his erstwhile investigative partner Inspector Hackett, "Vengeance" might as well be a family drama, albeit one that begins with a suicide.

The setup is a variation on the locked room: Victor Delahaye, a prominent Dublin businessman, takes his business partner's 24-year-old son Davy Clancy sailing, and then, when they are far from shore, shoots himself. There's no doubt that it's self-inflicted; the mystery is why.

This is where Quirke comes in, asking difficult questions, insinuating himself into the tension between the families, who are tied together across two generations by the business they share.

"Two families, in business together and living in each other's ears," Delahaye's widow Mona says to Quirke. "How would it not be tangled?" That, it should go without saying, is the conundrum that drives the book.

And yet, as "Vengeance" progresses, it never quite gets tangled enough. In part, this has to do with Quirke's late entrance, which, for all its oddball charm, leaves the novel rudderless in a way. It's also a product of Banville's tendency to pull focus, his constant shifts in point of view. He spends much of the first 100 or so pages introducing characters while his mystery languishes off to the side. When a second death occurs, it is less tragic than atmospheric — a narrative device but little more.

"Another funeral," Banville writes, "with the same mourners as before, save the one who was in the coffin. Yet to Quirke the atmosphere this time was different, even though he could not at first say what the difference was. Perhaps it was just the weather. On the day of Victor Delahaye's funeral the sun had shown as if for a festival, but today there was rain, a fine warm mist that drifted down absently yet still managed to soak its way rapidly into everyone's clothes, so that the inside of the church smelled like a sheep pen."

For Banville, this is the point of the exercise, to create his drama out of mood. He is less interested in resolution than insinuation, a loose hum of menace that implicates everyone. Such an idea becomes explicit about two-thirds into the novel, when a reporter named Jimmy Minor explains his infatuation with crime fiction to Inspector Hackett and Quirke's daughter Phoebe.

"When I was a kid," Minor says, "I used to read detective stories, couldn't get enough of them.... They made everything so squared off and neat, like a brown-paper parcel tied up with twine and sealing wax and an address label written out in copperplate. There was a body, there were clues, there were suspects, then the detective came along and put it all together into a story, a true story, the story of the truth, the story of what happened.... And then I grew up."

There are two ways to read such a statement: on the one hand, as the expression of an inherently chaotic universe, and on the other, as a way of putting crime fiction in its place. This, in turn, brings me back to my reservations about the Banville/Black dynamic, and what it may suggest.

"Vengeance" has a lot going for it — a propulsive style and a knowing self-awareness, a recognition of the devices every mystery requires. Yet in the end, it also comes off as not entirely committed, as if Banville didn't take the genre seriously enough. There is not enough tension here, not enough nuance, no real sense of anything at stake. And that, I can't help feeling, is less a failing of the genre than a failing of the author, beginning with the decision not to write under his own name.