For those of us who tend to read lighter at this time of year, summer can only mean a plethora of mystery books is at hand. Benjamin Black, the author of A Death in Summer, was my first pick because I so admire his literary fiction written under his real name, John Banville.
Now, having just put the book down after an almost marathon read, I’d point out that although A Death in Summer — story about a murdered man and the search for the person who took his life — certainly qualifies as mystery, it is not a light read. Seek out a bright comfortable spot to settle into and prepare to lose yourself in a mystery that will resonate on several levels.
The setting is post-WWII Ireland, the city is Dublin coming back from the weight of war, and the murder takes place in a summer of nearly inescapable heat. Detective Inspector Hackett is taken away from his Sunday dinner and driven to Brooklands, a horse farm in Kildare County, where a certain wealthy Canadian émigré has apparently blown his own head off by a shotgun blast. Hackett finds the weapon still resting in the lap of the now headless body. The author, with a deft touch for mixing the horrific with the bucolic, writes: “It added to the shock of the event that it had taken place on a drowsy Sunday afternoon in summer, while the beeches along the drive at Brooklands sweltered in the sun and the mingled smell of hay and horses lay heavy on the summer air.”
This is not the fast-paced who-done-it of today’s high tech forensic science, or of the police with storm trooper SWAT teams to back them up. This is rural Dublin in the early 1950s, and even after Hackett determines that the death was not by the decedent’s own hand, the body is buried and mourned before the real detecting begins. It is a bit weird, but you will read the book much faster than the crime is solved. And even then, the solution is presented almost as an epilogue, with an ending as disturbing as it is humane.
Inspector Hackett, understated and slow moving, is assisted by his ever-present pathologist, Dr. Quirke, who unexpectedly becomes intimate with the dead man’s widow: “He knew the perils of the situation he had blundered into . . . . what was passion without risk, without transgression.” All of Black’s characters are complex and carefully drawn and, as a result, the reader’s sympathies are painfully torn. The imperfect sons and daughters of both the good and the bad guys are no less guilty, but a lot more understandable. Some of the issues surrounding the death of this wealthy and obsessively passionate man are lingering shadows left over from WWII, like antisemitism, and some are as base as any that have come to light in the present. Benjamin Black writes of places in our souls just as dark as that one summer was hot.