Tag Archives: Murder mysteries

Christine Falls, Benjamin Black

Irish literary figure and Booker Prize winner John Banville adopts a pen name to begin a mystery series centered on Dublin pathologist Quirke. (I finished the novel unsure whether that is first name or last, nor of what is the other to go with it. Could be my lack of retention, or could be author’s intent to create one more bit of mystery which he can  choose to reveal for greater impact at some later date, ala Inspector ‘Morse’).

Black or Banville, there is still an impressive attention to framing detail; sometimes to excess.  Inventive descriptions as well, though some are less apt if you stop to picture what the words actually mean, rather than just listening to their melody in quick reading.  His characters too, are interesting enough in the moment, but not a little typecast if examined at all closely.  Still, their motivations are considered and valid, their conflicts and difficult choices are well-applied to drive dialogue if not plot, and all of it is much more real than, say, a Hammett, a King or a Fleming would do.

This is 1950’s Ireland too, and perhaps those stereotypes were more pervasive and real in that time and place. Surely Banville knows much better than I, so we roll with it.  What begins rather slowly builds a fair degree of tension and becomes, by the second half, a stay-up-late-to-finish-it experience, with little of the hangover that comes from having been manipulated or toyed with.  There’s also very little resort to gore, gunplay or car chases, though plenty of bar scenes, cigarette fondling and coffee/tea/wine drinking to give the impression of far more action than really occurs. Like most mysteries, it’s really all about distressed and disaffected people talking – and not talking – to one another about events which happened in the past or offscreen.

All in all, a very credible diversion, even if Quirke is not yet someone I’d really like to spend time with.  Worth a go at the second in the series though, to see where it all is headed, as this author is far too skilled to settle for just piling up the bodies and counting coup of capital crimes solved. 

Day of the Dead, Nicci French

This eighth volume in the Frieda Klein mystery series by husband and wife team Niccci Gerrard and Sean French is a highly satisfying wrap-up to their extended opus.   Playing with London geography as much as criminology and psychology, the novels are effective thrillers, yet give us more than enough human reality to make the journey more rewarding than disposable. 

Klein herself is astute and knowledgeable, but not unbelievably so, as with a Holmes or Poirot.  A bit more clever and self-aware than the rest of us – or the police she must often work around – but still flawed and capable of error, and clearly working very hard to maintain the equanimity which is her most notable characteristic.   Her preoccupation with the hidden rivers beneath the city is entertaining and enlightening and a very apt metaphor for all the things that lurk beneath the surface of any life or community – history, loss, violence, community. And caring and love as well. 

A rich cast of supporting characters give Klein much to live for, and the reader much reason to dread and care about the twists and turns of each mystery.  That her friend Josef, who plays a crucial role at several junctures, is an off-the-books & off-the-back-of-the-truck handyman/builder and an immigrant of questionable legality, serves as comment on the current state of relations and economics in England, and greater Europe as well.  Here and elsewhere the series takes the critique of British class prejudices which was (perhaps) implicit back in the days of Agatha Christie and became more palpable in the work of P. D. James and others, to a level appropriate to our times.  Even the trope of MI5 lurking in the background of British life is toyed with, without being given a free-pass on its morality.   Nicci French clearly feel more sympathy for the lower-middle and working-classes than peers, pliticians and captains of industry.

Seasoned plotters with at least eleven other novels behind them, Nicci French create credible crimes with enough complexity that the brutality involved need not be belabored.  From the start of this series, they established a through line – the mysterious, clever and ruthless villain Dean Reeve – to bridge from volume to volume, but were wise enough to detour into several largely-separate mysteries for some of the volumes, before tying it all back to Reeve for the ultimate resolution.

Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels come to mind, as another example of a single story played out over multiple volumes. This Klein series numbers only about than half that one’s volumes, and does not involve anything like the historic reconstruction of O’Brien’s work, but it is sufficiently substantial to be, arguably, a similar achievement within its genre.  (Or perhaps there are other mystery series out there with a similar combination of who-done-it and where is it all going and the arc of lives lived out, and I have just not yet encountered them.)

I read the series more or less as they came out, so not knowing if or how the authors would play it out.  Suspect it might be even more rewarding to read them now, knowing where each fits in the overall arc.  Someday, if I have the time…

Entirely satisfying – except in the sense that one is so very sorry to know the series has ended and there will be no more Frieda Klein novels to look forward to.  Not that Nicci French couldn’t write more – there is at least one very large red herring left in this sea on which to hook a sequel – but the reflections voiced through their characters suggest pretty clearly that they have done what they wanted to do here and have moved on.