Thursday, August 22, 2013

Black is back -- with Holy Orders, the latest Quirke novel

 Henry Holt, 2013
304 pp

Thanks to Librarything's early reviewers' program, I received a copy of this book from the publisher -- my many thanks!

Black (the pseudonym of John Banville) is back with installment number six in his Quirke series, and before I launch into what I think about this novel, just a quick announcement: Gabriel Byrne is the BBC's Quirke in a new television series, which I'll be eagerly awaiting here in the US when it decides to come our way.  Click here to get a  sneak peek, thanks to Now back to his latest book, Holy Orders, which has just been released here.  In this book, along with the five others in the series (Vengeance being the one just prior to Holy Orders),  the crime and its solution are not really the novel's central focus -- it's really  Benjamin Black's high-caliber writing and especially his characterizations that keep me reading and waiting for the next series installment.  Black is truly one of the most literary crime-fiction writers out there with a knack for establishing an atmosphere of time and place; he is also able to get his readers into the heads of his characters from the very outset and keep them there throughout the story.  In terms of literary crime writing, the Quirke series is my ultimate favorite.

A trysting couple take a walk along the towpath by a canal and see a body wedged in between the canal wall and a barge.  The Guards are sent for, and it isn't long until the body winds up in Quirke's morgue at Holy Family Hospital.  Quirke doesn't see it until the next morning, and when he pulls back the sheet, he is surprised to find the body is that of Jimmy Minor, a reporter for the Clarion and friend of Quirke's daughter Phoebe.  Minor had suffered severe beatings before being dumped into the water.  The case is inspected by Inspector Hackett, who enlists Quirke's help.  This setup is nothing new;  Hackett and Quirke have teamed up before.  A clue surfaces early during a search of Minor's apartment, a letter from the Fathers of the Holy Trinity in Rathfarnham, but just why Jimmy wanted to talk to one of their priests is a complete mystery.   At the Clarion, Jimmy's editor remembers that Jimmy had recently been to Tallaght on a trip in connection with a local group of Tinkers (Irish Travellers).   In the meantime, Phoebe, who thinks she's being followed, gets a surprise of her own from Jimmy's past.  As Quirke investigates, he has to deal with his own issues, most importantly, his health, both mental and physical.

The action takes place in 1950s Dublin, where it's always raining and where the Catholic church controls pretty much everything. The press is no exception; here, for example, the Church resorts to a "belt of the crozier," a form of financial blackmail, to keep unwanted stories out of a newspaper.  It's an Ireland
"hidebound by rules and regulations formulated in the corridors and inner chambers of the Vatican and handed if graven on tablets of stone."
As Quirke tells Phoebe, it's a place of two worlds, the one that he and Phoebe and "all the other poor idiots think we live in, and the real one, behind the illusion," where people behind the scenes run and control things, "keeping the meat grinder going." Quirke realizes he has a foot in each world -- in fact, throughout this novel there is a lot of duality -- twins, reality and hallucination, city people and country people, clergy and everyone else, heart and soul, past and present.

All Hallows' College, 1950s Dublin, courtesy of
 As always, Black's characterizations are intense, especially with Quirke. He's always dealing with people telling him how uncaring, cruel and cold he is, but for one thing, he can't shake his past, "where he had been most unhappy."  As the investigation progresses, and Quirke finds himself at the home of the Fathers of the Holy Trinity, he realizes that the past abuses he'd suffered, "body and soul," do not allow him to think "calmly or clearly" when it comes to the clergy.  For another thing, he's worked with the dead long enough, having "sectioned them out and delved into their innards," wondering now if he'd chosen his profession to get nearer to "the heart of the mystery," a secret which ultimately the dead do not yield.  While Quirke waxes existential about being and not being, daughter Phoebe is also struggling with her own emotions and comes into her own as a real person.  

What I really love about this entire series of novels, and what is made very much apparent in Holy Orders, is that the crimes take a back seat to how they affect everyone left behind in their wake.  Black wanders through everyone in Jimmy Minor's orbit, exploring the newspaper where he worked, the people investigating his death,  his friends, his family, etc., all converging into a photo of sorts of a specific time and place that Benjamin Black portrays so very well with his writing. I love his use of natural imagery & symbolism  (plants, birds, water) throughout the story, and the atmosphere he creates is sustained until the very end.  The issues he writes about that take place in the 1950s are also relevant in our modern world -- but I'll leave you to discover what I mean.

The Quirke series as a whole is excellent; Holy Orders continues that trend.  It takes the normal flow of the series and adds something different to it.  I can't say what goes on here in too much detail, but once you read it, you'll understand why.  I will say that this book is definitely not a  mainstream novel of crime fiction for a number of reasons -- most especially the characters, who, for the most part, are complicated and if you haven't read the earlier books in this series, starting here is not a good idea. It also trends more to the literary side rather than to straight-up crime writing, a style that may not be to other crime readers' tastes.  However, I can definitely say that if you want something way out of the ordinary, you will certainly get that in the books by Benjamin Black.

crime fiction from Ireland

afterthought: I bought a real copy for my home library, so if you live in the US and would like this ARC, it needs a home! I'll pay to get it to you.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

traveling back through time -- the 1930s and an homage to the original Black Mask magazine: Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter, by Theodore Tinsley

my e-copy from netgalley, at the invitation of the publishers.  Thank you so much!

In just a few days  from now (8/27),  Open Road Media plans to release an ebook  collection of stories called Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter: Smashing Detective Stories by Thedore A. Tinsley.  This particular ebook is just the beginning of a series planned by Open Road Media/Mysterious Press,  an homage of sorts to the old Black Mask crime magazine.  Along with Tinsley, upcoming authors in the series are Paul Cain, Norbert Davis, and Steve Fisher.  Now that my appetite has been whetted by Jerry Tracy,  I foresee much more Black Mask noir in my near future.

I'd never heard of either  Theodore (Ted) Tinsley or Jerry Tracy before I was invited to request this book from netgalley, but it didn't take long after starting this book of 25 stories (the last few reaching novella length) before I realized that I was in my crime fiction happy zone.  Reading these little gems is about as inwardly satisfying as stretching out on my sofa and watching  old black and white noir films late at night, one of my all-time favorite pastimes.  Not only are the stories good, but behind all of the crime, Tinsley introduces his modern-day readers to a Depression-era New York.  He sends his hero all over the city -- into the seedy tenements of the poor and the high-rise penthouse apartments of the wealthy (or their "luscious" mistresses),  into gimmicky night clubs and streets run by the kingpins of the criminal world,
"...past the black carcasses of department stores and furniture warehouses. Over towards the Hudson, towards the strings of rickety and condemned tenements that only a cycle of depression years had saved from the pick axes and rubbish chutes of the house wreckers."
 It's also a New York  where a wrong word in a newspaper gossip column can ruin careers or individuals  and can serve as a motive for murder -- or at least payback. 

Jerry Tracy works as a columnist at New York's Daily Planet.  In the book's introduction, Boris Dralyuk notes that Tracy is a fictional counterpart to Walter Winchell. Tracy  "packs a mean punch and can handle a Remington pistol as skillfully as he can a Remington typewriter. "  He writes out of an office overlooking "the helter and skelter of Times Square," and although the country is in the thick of the Depression, he earns a "princely salary" to keep the dirt flowing for the million Planet customers who would stop buying without his column.  He lives in a penthouse with a Chinese servant named McNulty, his  "butler, major-domo, conscience and guide," and  has a big-lug sidekick named Butch.  Tracy wears other hats as well -- over the years, the police have profited from his keen detective skills, as he often passed along info good enough to give him an in with Inspector Fitzgerald, the "Gruff Guy in Centre Street."  He is tough on crime and feels that parole is too easy, the product of "an easy-going system that got sentimental and forgiving as the years rolled by. "   Tracy is tough as nails on the outside and can deal with the worst crooks and the toughest dames on the New York streets, but inside he can be as soft as a marshmallow when his sense of injustice is piqued -- especially when it comes to old friends or women in distress.  He knows everyone from hotel desk clerks to elevator operators, from taxi drivers to the owners of swank clubs with names like "The Pom-Pom," "Club Espaňol," or "Club Humpty Dumpty", many of whom are his friends and help him out with information from time to time.

 There are way too many cases in this book to discuss separately, and while they're all good, my favorites involve:

1)   an old man from the South looking for his missing granddaughter
2)   an invitation for Jerry to attend a dinner party at the home of strangers that no one remembers sending to our illustrious hero
3)    a mysterious theater ticket for a particular seat that a lot of people seem interested in
4)    a five-dollar bill that some people would kill for
5)    the World's Fair and a  "fake scandal photo" taken by a rival columnist that just might put our hero out of business

Something bound to pop up in readers' minds while reading is the author's use of racial slurs or, as in the case of Tracy's manservant McNulty, ridiculous pidgin' English and stereotypical Charlie-Chan type "me-likee" kind of language.   Let me just say that while modern readers may be offended, or as in my case very much  taken aback,  these stories were written a very long time ago and this sort of stuff was part of the everyday vernacular.  Try not to judge these parts too harshly -- things were very different 80 years ago. 

Overall, though, Tinsley's story telling,  the New York setting and Jerry Tracy himself make for hours of excellent reading -- this is probably a book where you want to read a few stories at a time, put down your reader and come back to the stories later in small bits so you can savor every second.  Highly, highly recommended for people who enjoy classic crime fiction and want to discover a new author -- or for people starting to cut their teeth on pulp or noir crime.  Super duper good and a real treasure.

You can watch a short little video with Otto Penzler speaking about  Black Mask Magazine below:

I did a bit of digging, and found an old (black-and-white of course!) movie based on Tinsley's hero: "Murder is News." I'll definitely be watching!

Friday, August 16, 2013

PBS Mystery coming up this weekend: The Lady Vanishes, by Ethel Lina White

The Lady Vanishes is one of my very favorite books, one I read eons ago and have just pulled out for a reread. It's not going to happen before Sunday -- I'm working really hard right now on a VERY long collection of Depression-era pulp stories for netgalley and Open Road Media (review to come shortly).  Anyway, I just got my usual "here's what's coming up" email from PBS and there's a very cool trailer that was part of the email.  Oh my gosh -- this looks so good!