It’s A Mystery: “He had never tried to hide from himself his taste for the hazard of sin.”
By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt and Company, 2011
The pseudonym is the prevalent signature of novels of detection, crime, mystery and espionage. The history of crime and mystery literature abounds in the pen name or nom de plume. The motive for adopting a pseudonym may be pragmatic, as when the prolific author of fiction about Dr. Gideon Fell and other sleuths, John Dickson Carr, assumed the name of Carter Dickson for his series featuring Sir Henry Merrivale and his stories starring Colonel March, Chief of the Department of Queer Complaints. (N.B.: queer had a different connotation when this appeared in 1940.) The first Dr. Gideon Fell book, an elderly lexicographer with a slew of
degrees who works as a consultant to Scotland Yard, was Hag’s Nook (1933). Sir Henry Merrivale, a barrister, was introduced in The Plague Court Murders (1934). It is worth noting that Carr was the undisputed master of the locked room mystery. The first one, The Three Coffins (1935, reissued in 1979), considered his best, contains Dr. Fell’s much-touted Lecture on the Locked Room.
Sometimes a pseudonym backfires. Erle Stanley Gardner departed from Perry Mason for another series under the name of A.A. Fair. The publisher didn’t think much of it and brought them out as “An A.A. Fair novel by Erle Stanley Gardner.”
Often a pseudonym is a means of disguise. Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a professor at Columbia University, became Amanda Cross for her mysteries about Kate Fansler, a feminist professor of English Literature with a sleuthing sideline. The first was In the Last Analysis (1964). Cecil Day-Lewis, the poet, became Nicholas Blake. Under that pseudonym, he created the detective Nigel Strangeways, a character based on W.H. Auden. The first: A Question of Proof (1935).
Gore Vidal chose to be Edgar Box when he wrote three detective novels. Kenneth Millar, because his wife Margaret Millar had already achieved note as a writer, became Ross Macdonald. It is certainly true that David John Moore Cornwell took the pseudonym John Le Carré because he was working for British intelligence while writing his early novels. It is also a mischievous choice: Le Carré means the square in French.
Which brings me to A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black, the pseudonym of John Banville. The Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea (2005), Banville has won many other awards for his novels. His Book of Evidence (1989), was hailed in some quarters as “a remarkable crime novel.” Which is a little like calling Crime and Punishment “a good mystery.” This fourth entry into his Benjamin Black mystery series starring his sleuthing alter ego Dublin pathologist, Dr. Quirke, is the best yet.
A Death in Summer begins with the death from shotgun blasts of the newspaper tycoon Richard Jewell, “known to the jauntier among his detractors as Diamond Dick.” (Think Rupert Murdoch crossed with William Randolph Hearst.) It is a sweltering summer afternoon when Detective Inspector Hackett and his old friend and colleague, Dr. Quirke, are summoned to Brooklands, Jewell’s very grand estate in County Kildare—in the words of Hackett, “Diamond Dick’s little place in the country.” Although his head was blown to smithereens, the official word from his own paper, among others, is that he died from a cerebral hemorrhage. The local gossip soon brands it a suicide: it is a running gag in the Quirke series that all important information is in general circulation in garrulous Dublin before it reaches the police. That being said, the police, Hackett, and the pathologist, Quirke, think it’s murder:
“Anyway,” Inspector Hackett was saying, “it makes no odds to me what they say about it in the papers, or what they speculate might have happened. I have my job to do, same as ever. Like I say Dr. Quirke, aren’t we a queer pair? Connoisseurs of death, that’s us, you in your way, me in mine.”
Quirke’s way, as Hackett knows well, goes far beyond the dissection of the body. It leads him first to Jewell’s arch rival, Carlton Sumner, a Canadian press baron whose nefarious deals mirror Diamond Dick’s and then some. Sumner, as it turns out, is a very ugly customer. Then there is the widow. She’s the favorite suspect, the logical name on everyone’s lips. She’s very beautiful, very French and does not like to be called Mrs. Jewell. Quirke reflects that he
would not have picked Richard Jewell as the kind of man that the kind of woman he guessed Françoise d’Aubigny to be would marry.
Soon enough, he’s bedding her, that’s also Quirke’s way. He should know better. This kind of complication, in the Dublin of the 1950’s, is catnip to the politicians and priests of what Quirke likes to call “this tight little island”. Using the murder as metaphor, Black’s unsparing portrait of the Irish aristocracy is wondrous. Incest surfaces as the sexual preference of the rich and powerful in all the Quirke novels. There is virulent anti-Semitism. And there is pedophilia, with orphans the special target. This last is achingly familiar territory to Quirke, himself an orphan. When all the strands are tied together, the solution is indelibly real and haunting.
But it is Quirke who is as fascinating as he is familiar. He is a romantic who loves poetry (like P.D. James’s Dalgliesh), he is known only by his surname (Colin Dexter’s Morse or Parker’s Spenser who has a Quirk in his life without the ‘e’), he’s an alcoholic chain-smoker (Rankin’s Rebus), and he has a difficult relationship with his daughter (Mankell’s Wallander).
Black is a luminous storyteller. His descriptions are pure poetry. The priest “running ghostly fingers over the Braille of Quirke’s soul.” The meringues “looked like soiled snow splashed with blood.” No surprise, Quirk’s favorite poet is Yeats. Mine too:
dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.