"Benjamin Black's" most recent foray into the world of neo-noir genre fiction, Vengeance (2012), feels strangely exhausted. Primarily a whydunnit instead of a whodunnit--why, exactly, did businessman Victor Delahaye commit suicide on a boat in front of his partner's son?--the novel's plot lazily unfurls across the Quirke series' usual territory: the moral and cultural degeneracy of post-WWII Dublin's wealthy families, whose religious allegiances have collapsed, at best, into social markers that are secular in all but name. Inspector Hackett, contemplating Ashgrove, the Delahayes' mansion, thinks that "[i]t was...a queer comedown for a grand mansion such as this, the seat of gentlemen and their ladies in centuries past, that it should be reduced to the status of a holiday villa for a gang of moneyed Dublin riffraff" (33). If the novel objects to Hackett's phraseology, it nevertheless seems to endorse his basic point. In some heavy-handed symbolism, the patriarchs of the supposedly cooperative Clancy and Delahaye clans are either senile or physically debilitated beyond repair, and their children are variously wayward, incompetent, or arguably insane. Quirke himself is absent from long stretches of the narrative, as though Black suspects that the stereotypically Defective Detective schtick (Quirke is an orphaned alcoholic who abandoned his daughter and can't maintain a relationship for more than five seconds) is beginning to show as many signs of wear as Inspector Hackett's increasingly dilapidated suit. And this is the sort of mystery novel that requires its characters to make cringe-inducingly stupid errors of judgment in order to move the plot along.
The Quirke novels have all had greater ambitions in terms of investigating their own genre status. This time around, the problem is the "mystery" in mystery fiction, the question of not-knowing. Sylvia Clancy "knew that she should not have married Jack Clancy" (30)--and yet, she did. Besides the "how" and "why" of the main plot, the characters repeatedly investigate, with frequent bafflement, their social positions, their feelings, their motivations. "What was the point of sailing? Davy did not know, and had never dared to inquire" (9), we're told, a form of ignorance that is grounded in social differences, the barely-visible but uncrossable boundary line separating the firm's families. Similarly, Quirke realizes that he and Inspector Hackett barely "know" each other at all, despite years of collaboration (45), while Jack Clancy cannot remember how he met his mistress (69) and Quirke's daughter Phoebe "did not know" how she would respond if Quirke died (153). The mysteries of both social status and interpersonal relationships remain thoroughly impenetrable, despite the investigations going on elsewhere in the plot. None of these clouds of unknowing are ever resolved; the drive of detective fiction towards closure jars against emotions and drives that outpace reason and logic. Quirke knows that having sex with the femme fatale is a remarkably bad idea, and yet (in an advanced state of intoxication) he does it anyway. This may be predictable, given Quirke's quirks, but it also remains inexplicable--even to the reader, who keeps yelling at him throughout the scene. In other words, Vengeance rejects the detective novel genre's insistence that, really, everything ought to make sense.
But there's also a certain cynicism about Black's approach, because the novel otherwise adheres to the cliches of both neo-noir and detective fiction more generally. In fact, Vengeance reminds us that metafictional techniques frequently have no substantive effect on either the novel's narrative form or the reader's consumption thereof. Like Golden Age mysteries, in which the characters may well know that they're in a novel but carry on anyway (e.g., the work of John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson), Vengeance cheerfully flagposts its genre conventions without doing much of anything to or with them. The obnoxious reporter Jimmy Minor (himself a genre cliche), reminiscing about his early obsession with detective novels, tells Phoebe that "'I used to get such a warm feeling when I reached the end and everything was explained, the killer identified and taken away by the police, and everybody else going back to their lives as if none of it mattered, as if nothing serious had taken place'" (209). But he abandoned his fantasy about the big summation scenes and the rest of it because "'I grew up'" (209). Dismissing classic detective fiction as essentially a childish fairy tale about endings and reset buttons, Jimmy appears to be on board with Vengeance's critique of detective plot resolutions. By the same token, Phoebe's boyfriend David Sinclair jokingly compares her to "'Nancy Drew, female investigator'" (150); one of the Delahaye twins jokes that ""If it was the pictures, this would be the moment for me to ask, Just what are you driving at, Inspector?'" (225); and Jack Clancy's wife wearily says of her husband's infidelities that "'It's a thing you discover, how hackneyed it all is. You hear yourself saying things that you'd laugh at if you read them in a magazine story'" (241). Which is a rather dangerous thing for a novelist to write, really. Having said all that, the novel does, in fact, wrap up the plot with a classic summation and a period-appropriate "solution" to genteel criminality. And in regards to Quirke, it mashes down the reset button with a vengeance: his life will be as rotten as ever. Who ever heard of a happy neo-noir detective? This may be gloomy, but it is no less of a fairy tale than Jimmy's Golden Age novels.