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A DEATH IN SUMMER by Benjamin Black: Book Review

In Dublin, newspaper magnate Richard Jewell is sitting on a chair in his sumptuous study.  Well, his body is sitting on the chair; much of his head is elsewhere.  There’s a shotgun in his hands, but the police aren’t sure it’s really a suicide.

A Death in Summer brings readers back in time more than half a century.  Diamond Dick, as Jewell was known to friends and foes alike, was a tough businessman; like a diamond, he had more than one facet to his persona.  He was ruthless, but he also gave generously to various charities, although no one could say for certain if that was because he truly believed in their aims or if he wanted to better solidify his place in Dublin society.

Inspector Hackett is called in to investigate the death.  Francoise d’Aubigny, Jewell’s widow, professes to be “baffled” by her husband’s death, but she certainly doesn’t appear saddened or distraught.  She explains to Hackett that she and her husband had lived separate lives and she doesn’t understand, or says she doesn’t, why her husband’s death by suicide should interest anyone except herself, their eight-year-old daughter, and Jewell’s sister Dannie.  But then Hackett tells Francoise that he thinks her husband did not kill himself.

Hackett calls in the state pathologist, but because that doctor is ill Hackett’s friend Dr. Quirke comes instead.  The two have worked together before, and it’s not long before Quirke is doing some investigating on his own, with special attention paid to the beautiful and seductive Francoise.

Hackett learns that the deceased’s estate manager, Maguire, had served a prison term for manslaughter; that Jewell’s business competitor, Carlton Sumner, was trying to take over Jewell’s newspaper empire; that Teddy Sumner, Carlton’s son, who had been sent to Canada to avoid prison time has now returned to Dublin; and that the marriage between the Jewells was a marriage in name only.  Plus there are millions of euros at stake from various Jewell enterprises.  Plenty of motives for murder.

An interesting sidelight is the fact that Richard Jewell was Jewish, although he didn’t practice his religion, and that he gave huge amounts to St. Christopher’s, a Catholic boarding school.  Maguire, the estate manager, spent part of his childhood at St. Christopher’s;  Marie Bergin, the Jewells’ former maid, had worked there.  And Quirke had spent a year in the orphanage before being sent elsewhere.   Is there some sinister connection?

Benjamin Black has assembled a fascinating cast of characters in A Death in Summer Since this is the fourth novel featuring Quirke but the first one I’ve read, there’s a lot of back story that I’m not familiar with.  Dr. Quirke is a protagonist I’d like to get to know better, a man whose name certainly describes his unusual and often difficult personality.

Thanks go to my friend Kate, who recommended this series.  I look forward to doing some catch-up reading about Hackett, Quirke, and the Dublin of the 1950s.

You can read more about Benjamin Black, also known as the prize-winning novelist John Banville, at his web site.