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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Vengeance’

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VENGEANCE
By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt, $26, 320 pages

There are very few writers who can write elegantly about murder, but there is no question that Benjamin Black is one of them.

In "Vengeance," a tale of suicide and murder in a deeply dysfunctional family group in 1950s Ireland, Mr. Black describes darkness of the mind in symmetrical language unexpectedly laced with graveyard humor. In a scene in which the body of the suicide is being interred, the aptly named pathologist known as Quirke recalls a cemetery where there is a sign warning, "Planting in this area restricted to dwarves." As his companion's shoulders shake, Quirke adds, "I think it is trees that are meant."

Mr. Black goes on to delineate the funeral: "The vicar droned, his eyes fixed dreamily on a corner of the sky above the trees, a hymn was raggedly sung, someone let fall a sob that sounded like a fox's bark."

In the cortege, Quirke meets a Dickensian character called Maverley who wears a starched high collar and has "a curious way of blinking, like a bird of prey." He is the bookkeeper of the firm run by Victor Delahaye, the man at the center of the family's unease. Maverley knows all the financial problems of the company and how they affect the assembled.

The easy flow of the book is not surprising, given that Benjamin Black is the pen name of John Banville, winner of the Man Booker Prize for "The Sea," who ostensibly writes mysteries as a pastime between more serious works. Except these mysteries -- this is his fifth -- are literary creations of haunting and haunted places and people.

Quirke is fascinating as the dominant character, a man who remembers too many old, unhappy things and regrets too much, especially an inclination to repeat his mistakes. The Delahayes, especially the glamorous widow, Mona, with her coldblooded feline appeal, inspire a renewal of temptation for Quirke.

With one suicide and one murder, the plot moves at a deliberate pace, with heavy hints dropped about who has killed whom and who was unfaithful and whose prism of politeness conceals a capacity for violence that leaves no remorse. It is Mr. Black's style to explore psychological nooks and crannies and, consequently, killing becomes incidental to the thought that preceded it.

Among the book's characters, there are an eerie pair of identical twins, Jonas and James, the sons of the suicidal father, whose chief concern is retaining what is left of his estate. They are almost cartoon characters, drawling and self-confident and sinister. And then there is Aunt Maggie, who lives in the shadow of hysteria, uncertain of herself and immersed in deep mourning for her suicidal brother, Victor, whom she considers "an all round saint."

When Victor Delahaye commits suicide, the friend to whom Maggie turns thinks to herself, "The dead get so much more than their share of praise and all for just being dead." And she advises Maggie, "Don't upset yourself so -- think of your asthma." The book is peppered with delicate yet vinegary vignettes, and although the ending may come as no surprise, it is appropriate to the style of the author.

It is easy to feel sympathy for poor deranged Maggie, yet an equally tormented mind exists in Davy Clancy, the young man who is the son of Delahaye's partner, Sam. Davy, who is afraid of the sea and ignorant of sailing, is commanded to accompany Delahaye on what proves to be the latter's suicidal sail. The irony and cruelty involved in this incident is subtly developed as the plot moves along. Poor Davy, who has reason not to defy Delahaye, finds himself clinging to balance as the sailboat heaves. He also finds himself listening to Delahaye, a skilled sailor, recounting a chilling childhood memory of being left alone in the street by his father. What was important, he emphasizes to the confused Davy, was that he fled for help to a shopkeeper who gave him a barley sugar candy, but he didn't cry.

"Self reliance, you see," Delahaye declares, "a lesson in self reliance." Davy listens speechlessly as Delahaye then unwraps a gun, tells him, "I'd send you for ice cream if there were any shops," and shoots himself in the chest. The horrified Davy throws the gun overboard, watches Delahaye die, and until he is rescued, waits for hours in a sailing ship he can't operate, under a broiling sun that bastes his skin. There is, of course, a reason why Davy is invited on that grim little voyage, and it is the conundrum at the heart of the book. Readers who embark on the voyage of unraveling this mystery and others it sets in motion will not be disappointed.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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