From Benjamin Black, a mystery to savor for its gorgeous prose

gorgeous proseHow often have you started reading a book in which the first several pages were beautifully written, only to notice that the prose grew progressively plainer and less interesting as you proceeded? Perhaps you’ve never been aware of that, but I sure have. It’s a sign that the author struggled to produce lyrical and evocative language in the opening chapter that went to the agent or publisher with an outline for approval — but lapsed into pedestrian prose once the project received a green light.


Holy Orders (Quirke #6) by Benjamin Black

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


That phenomenon is especially notable in genre fiction — mysteries, science fiction, romance — but you won’t find it in any of the writing of Benjamin Black, a pseudonym for the Booker Prize-winning Irish author, John Banville. Banville is sometimes compared to Vladimir Nabokov — and you can see why even in his genre fiction. Holy Orders, the sixth of Banville’s novels (writing as Black) about the tortured Dublin pathologist who appears to be named only Quirke, is a textbook example of dazzling prose. Here, for example, are a few of the images Black sprinkles so generously through the pages of the story:

  • As he watched her, with people and cars flashing past, he experienced a sudden, swooping sensation in his chest, as it his heart had come loose for a second and dropped and bounced, like a ball attached to an elastic.
  • It was his experience that people always knew more than they thought they did. Things lay torpid at the bottom of their minds like fat pale fish in the depths of a muddy pond, and often, with a bit of effort, those fish could be made to swim up to the surface.
  • [T]he trees shivered and shook like racehorses waiting for the off, and fresh green leaves torn from their boughs whipped in wild flight down the middle of the road or plastered themselves to the pavements as if hiding their faces in terror. 

After immersing myself in such glorious prose for the duration of this deeply satisfying tale, I now learn that Banville considers his crime writing to be “cheap fiction” and a craft as opposed to the art he brings to his other fiction. He professes to spend little time on these lesser efforts — though that’s very difficult to believe! — but, then, Banville has been quoted in a British magazine trashing all his own books (“I hate them all … I loathe them. They’re all a standing embarrassment.”). And this is a man who has been winning literary awards by the dozen since 1973 and is widely regarded as one of the true masters of English style.

With all this said, I must concede that any reader looking for nonstop action and sheer excitement won’t find them in Holy Orders. Black is concerned more with character development and scene-setting than with the usual conventions of the mystery genre. The story involves Quirke, his daughter Phebe, and his pal Inspector Hackett of the Garda (the Dublin police) in a complex plot with Irish “travelers” (called “tinkers” in Ireland in the 1950s, when the Quirke novels are set) and a passel of very unpleasant priests and their enforcers. This is not a happy tale, but reading it you’ll learn a good deal about the warp and woof of life in Dublin in that difficult time in the wake of the Second World War.

For additional reading

I’ve reviewed all the novels published to date in this series at The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black. For a view of Dublin from another Irish novelist, see From Tana French, a brilliant and satisfying novel of suspense.

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For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

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