Thursday, July 20, 2017

The double pleasure of holiday reads

There's nothing like a good book to kick off a holiday. This one looks like an ordinary murder mystery, but prize-winning literary author John Banville (Benjamin Black is a pseudonym), fills it with exquisite writing.

There’s a peculiar pleasure to plunging into the new world of a novel at the beginning of a vacation – it’s like a holiday within a holiday, a doubling of the far-away-from-everything effect. The best experience I ever had of this came courtesy of spy novelist Alan Furst. Opening one of his books at the start of a holiday on Saltspring Island a few years ago, I was immediately transported to the rainy gray streets of Paris just before the Second World War. There was a hotel room, a particularly nasty murder, and for the next few days, I whipped around Europe with Furst’s hero, untangling the mystery while sticking to my/his virtuous principles.

This week, I spent the first few days of my Saltspring holiday in Dublin with Benjamin Black’s quixotic Dr. Quirke, a pathologist whose “fierce” curiosity is always getting him into trouble. Even the Dead is the seventh of Black’s series set in post-Second-World War Dublin, where the Roman Catholic Church still wields an iron fist. Many of the plots revolve around the Mother of Mercy Laundry, where unwed mothers-to-be are imprisoned by nuns and forced to do laundry work while awaiting their babies. At birth, the babies are snatched away to be sent to the church’s U.S. connections for adoption. Money, power, and danger are always involved.

The thing about Benjamin Black is that he’s also John Banville, a “serious” literary author, and it’s his writing that makes his murder mysteries an exquisite reading experience. Banville’s plots aren’t his best point, and after seven outings, his major characters’ tics (Quirke’s endless battle with the bottle and his daughter’s little black dress with the nun-like white collar) are getting a bit tired. But his turns of phrase, his beautiful sentences and his descriptions transform his novels into one of my true pleasures in life – a double holiday.

Here are some reasons I enjoyed Black’s latest venture into murder:

Nor could he recall deciding, in his school days, that this was what he would spend his life doing: slicing into the bellies of dead bodies, clipping their ribs and sawing through their sternums, his nostrils filled with their awful smells, his hands gummy with their congealing blood. (Quirke’s assistant David Sinclair has second thoughts about his unusual profession.)

The trees on Ailesbury Road seemed to throb in the sunshine, great bulbous masses of leaves shimmering inside a penumbra of grayish heat mist. (Black’s descriptions of summer’s heat are wonderful to read while I experience the same thing on my holiday.)

He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the dead man’s groin and the shriveled black thing there, like a crooked little finger. (A rookie policeman sees his first dead body; the victim had been burned in a car fire.)

A large proportion of the patients, she had noticed, were nail biters. It could be disturbing, listening to them as they sat there gnawing away like squirrels, as if they were trying to get at the sweet, crisp core of themselves. Sometimes they spat fragments of nail on the carpet, though discreetly, watching her out of the corner of an eye. (Quirke’s daughter Phoebe has taken a job as receptionist to a psychiatrist.)

 “It’s like discovering that all along you’ve been walking on a tightrope, and suddenly the end of the rope is in sight. You want to get off, but you can’t, and you can’t stop or retrace your steps, you just have to go on, until you can’t go on any farther. Simple as that.” (Quirke’s brother Mal describes what it’s like to get a diagnosis of terminal cancer.)

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