Following a lead to the south of France during the fourth of his investigations to be committed to print, Dublin pathologist Dr Quirke notes that "the Customs Officials and the passport police scowled and elaborately shrugged, as they were supposed to". These scenes in Antibes, he feels, might have been staged to "reassure visitors that everything they had hoped for was exactly what they would get".
This riff on the pleasurable meeting of expectations could be taken as a metaphor for the approach to crime fiction of John Banville when writing as Benjamin Black, the pseudonym under which he has released a string of mystery fictions that account for more than 80% of his published output since winning the Man Booker prize under his real name with The Sea in 2005.
Like tourists to Banville's French resort, admirers of traditional detective yarns get what they might have hoped for. The quirks of Quirke are reassuringly familiar. He is known only by his surname (Dexter's Morse), is an alcoholic chainsmoker (Rankin's Rebus), loves poetry (PD James's Dalgleish), has a difficult relationship with a daughter (Mankell's Wallander) and has difficulty in sustaining relationships (everyone's everyone). Even the fact that, although a pathologist, his involvement in cases goes well beyond the dissection of the body nods to the convention of the forensic investigator popularised by Silent Witness and Waking the Dead on television and Patricia Cornwell in print.
These frequent generic echoes (the book also contains a pattern of knowing references to Ian Fleming's Bond) are something far more complicated than unoriginality. For Banville, they represent a respect for the form in which he has chosen to work. A sonnet lasts for 14 lines; the test is how good those lines can be. A detective novel has an emotionally insecure life insurance risk at its centre: the challenge is what can be achieved, linguistically and psychologically, around these fixed points.
The answer, in the Quirke series, is a great deal. Sensibly, Black/Banville has also obeyed another piece of generic etiquette: the primacy of convincingly depicting place and time. His setting is Dublin in the 1950s (a single newspaper headline locates the latest book in 1956), with sparing period detail – the local paper is "all horses and dead priests", and endless cups of tea are drunk, with coffee an exotic novelty – establishing a world that is both remote from ours and oddly familiar. The effects of the postwar austerity anticipate those of the present recession and, then as now, the politicians and priests of what Quirke calls "this tight little island" are more impressive in rhetoric than record.
A Death in Summer begins with the death from shotgun blasts of newspaper proprietor Richard Jewell, locally known as Diamond Dick. His own paper insists he died from a cerebral haemorrhage (the novel contains many nice gibes at journalism from Banville, an old Irish Times hand), while local gossip insists it was suicide: it is a running gag in the books that all important information is in general circulation in garrulous Dublin before it reaches the police.
The local cops and Quirke, though, soon suspect murder and focus on enemies (a Canadian rival press baron) and Jewell's exotic French widow. Quirke encounters traditional pitfalls for the literary investigator – getting too close to a witness, being "warned off" by menacing strangers – but also touches on the much fresher territory of Irish antisemitism.
But the main point of Black, as it is with Banville, is the work the words do. There are too many considerable prose stylists in the crime field (PD James, Reginald Hill, James Ellroy, for a start) for the Man Booker winner to be offering any kind of writing lessons to such professionals, but his sentences are a regular pleasure. Quirke reflects at one point that he "would not have picked Richard Jewell as the kind of man that the kind of woman he guessed Francoise d'Aubigny to be would marry". There are also frequent taut metaphors in the Chandler/Fleming style: when a witness frowns, "his entire forehead crinkled, horizontally, like a venetian blind being shut and the line of his shiny brown hair lowered itself by a good half-inch".
Such flourishes, and the knowing references to 007 elsewhere, made me think that Banville would be an interesting bet for one of the Bond continuations recently commissioned by the Fleming estate from Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver. Meanwhile, with Quirke, he has made a fascinating addition to the ranks of the defective detective in books that combine respectful reading of the genre with brightly original writing.