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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2007

Mayhem and mystery in the British Isles


Ireland s John Banville, who published his dark tale initially under a pseudonym, also is the author of The Sea, a moody, introspective novel that won the Man Booker Literary Prize in 2005.

Reginald Hill, who lives in the north of England, faithfully produces a steady stream of middle-brow stuff, like this 21st installment of his popular Dalziel-Pascoe police procedural series.

In this pairing, Banville has sunk a bit to Hill s level, while the Englishman strains hard to push his routine cop-buddy book into a metaphysical zone.

Hill s title might scare his fans, since the Fat Man could be Andy Dalziel, the portly, profane police detective who keeps the series interesting with his outlandish behavior.

Early on, he s put in a coma by a powerful blast, perhaps an accident at a terrorist bomb factory in Yorkshire. Partner Pascoe, shielded by Dalziel s bulk, is unhurt and must carry on.

He s soon drafted by the anti-terrorist investigators who cramp his style as he unearths a cell of Brit patriots devoted to racially cleansing the Sceptered Isle of Muslims.

It s a bit of a muddle, but fans of the series will be content.

There s no such diversity for Banville, just the lace-curtain class of 1950s Dubliners and their American cousins in Boston.

The common thread here is the Roman Catholic Church, a powerful institution that masks its illegal adoption practices under the excuse of saving souls.

Another fat man, Quirke Griffin, is in real need of saving, though. The boozy middle-aged fellow is a pathologist at a Dublin hospital where Mal Griffin, his brother by adoption, is chief obstetrician and seems to be up to no good.

The spark that lights the story is the wrongly recorded death of Christine Falls, a young woman who really died in childbirth.

Banville is a talented writer of prose, but his world is a dark, oppressive place full of unhappy people, perhaps too much so. As in The Sea, the past exerts a powerful hold on the present, but it s a past of death, failure, and unresolved love.

Banville s story sounds the familiar themes the sins of the father, the secrets of the family, the corrosive effects of unnecessary guilt in episodes lifted from a handful of writers ranging from Raymond Chandler to Frank McCourt.

Read the book anyway, just for the lovely language.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is book editor of the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: bhoover@post-gazette.com.

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