In this fifth novel of the Dublin-based series involving Dr. Quirke, author Benjamin Black, the pen name of Booker Prize-winner John Banville, continues all the main characters from previous novels, spending little time rehashing the sometimes sordid history of their relationships. Instead, he picks up where he left off with A Death in Summer, set in the 1950s. Quirke, a Dublin physician, is still running the hospital's pathology lab, and he has finally resolved an old wound by reuniting with his wary daughter Phoebe Griffin. Brought up as the child of Quirke's stepbrother Malachy and never informed until recently of her real parentage, Phoebe is somewhat leery of Quirke, not really knowing how to treat him or what he expects. Quirke, a long-time friend of Police Detective Inspector Hackett, is still available for private consultations with him, especially when the real reasons for a death may be in dispute.
Both Hackett and Quirke become involved with an investigation at the beginning of this novel when Victor Delahaye, the main partner in an old company with a flourishing automobile repair business, invites the young son of his partner Jack Clancy to accompany him on a sail. Young Davy Clancy hates sailing, and has no idea why Jack makes such an issue of having him as the only passenger. When he and Delahaye are far from land, Delahaye pulls out a gun and kills himself. Quirke, upon examining the body, accompanies Inspector Hackett when he interviews the not-so-bereaved family. The remainder of the novel involves the search to discover why Victor Delahaye committed suicide, a problem which becomes far more complicated when yet another death occurs at sea, this one far more mysterious.
Black's style has always been to keep things simple throughout and to write clear, concise prose, and no reader will have trouble keeping track of the characters, their stated motivations, and how their actions evolve. At his most incisive, Black has always placed his characters firmly within the 1950s milieu of Dublin society, allowing the action to turn on personalities and their predicaments. Those new to the series may become completely absorbed in the mystery and its revelations about characters, but those who have read the entire series so far (and I've read them all) may wonder, sadly, if the series has played itself out. The new characters are static and verge on stereotypes, and Quirke and the familiar characters fail to grow or develop in new ways.
The expected twists in the story do come with the kind of suddenness one expects of such mysteries, but they are simple twists, not complex, and many readers may figure out some of the "surprises" - and the ending - before they occur. Vengeance can often be complex and it is certainly a major motivating factor here, but the sometimes elegant simplicity which Black has made a trademark in the earlier novels, becomes merely simplistic here.