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What's not "serious" about detective fiction?
on November 24, 2014
Vengeance is the fifth of the six novels featuring the Dublin pathologist Quirke (no first name) from the pen of Benjamin Black, aka Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville. Banville reportedly writes the series for money, seeing them as of a lower order than the dozens of “serious” novels and plays he has created. Clearly, the critics agree with him, having awarded Banville a mind-bogglingly long series of awards and prizes. However, this quick and dirty distinction between genre fiction and the more “serious” stuff has me wondering how many people have actually read all those award-winning books, and whether the half-dozen novels in the Quirke series have attracted a wider audience than all the rest of Banville’s work combined. I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
Truth to tell, I’ve never been able to read all the way through a single Booker Prize-winning novel. I’m convinced that the judges deliberately seek out work that’s designed to be read by critics, academic deconstructionists, and nobody else. But I digress.
In the Quirke novels, set in 1950s Dublin, Banville comes to grip with the Irish elite, the underlying tension between Catholic and Protestant, the dead weight of the Church, and the veil of history. Quirke and his collaborator, Inspector Hackett of the Garda (the Irish police), invariably find themselves caught up in the often violent conflicts roiling Dublin’s elite society. In Vengeance, two families are locked in combat for three generations, one Protestant, one Catholic, as partners in one of the country’s biggest businesses. The mysterious death at sea of one of the partners triggers an investigation by Quirke and Hackett that leads them to uncover long-hidden family secrets.
The Quirke series is successful, I believe, precisely because it lacks the conceits and conventions of so much detective fiction: the cliff-hanging ends of chapters, the unlikely coincidences, the rosters of likely suspects, the red herrings. Each novel tells a unique story, and each is firmly grounded in its characters and in the history of a particular time and place. If, like me, you enjoy detective fiction but are uncomfortable feeling manipulated, you’ll enjoy Vengeance and the other five novels (so far) in the series.