Every time I think about our theme of the month (relationships), I hear Carly Simon sing “Anticipation”. I’m sure it makes sense somewhere deep in my psyche, probably because I was in high school when the song was popular and relationships were ever so painful then.

So now, a few decades later, I’m listening to Benjamin Black’s A Death in Summer. I am so amazed at this book, I began listening to it again immediately after the first listen. Now that I know Who Did It and the truth behind all the secrets, it’s fascinating to see how Black seeds and obscures his clues.

Not that it’s a clever puzzle; it isn’t. But Black’s writing is on another level. From his first sentence in a scene to the last, every word, every phrase, every sentence has purpose and it flows in a pace that is just right.

There are scenes reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman film, subtle and filled with tiny details but each detail develops the characters or plot like the scene early in the book where Inspector Hackett is interviewing the grieving widow and the farm manager in the kitchen. There is a fourth character, a uniformed officer, who blends into the background in that scene, green in the gills from having seen his first death-by-shotgun-to-the-head corpse. Black feathers in tiny details and gorgeous analogies through Hackett’s eyes, which on first pass you think: well, he’s just telling us what the other characters look like; and on second pass, you realize he’s laying out the puzzle.

Black’s books are character-driven, even the mysteries. In every scene, we are evaluating whether a character is telling the truth, or lying, and his/her motivation and how the POV character feels about that plus how the POV character fits this event into his or her life, making sense of his or her own identity and purpose including living in Dublin, Ireland in the 1950’s.

It seems everyone is asking “Why am I in this place? Is there somewhere else I should be?” Maybe it’s just the inheritance from those who stayed behind when so many emigrated, but it never occurred to me that they would be wondering whether they should leave too.

There’s a great first date scene where she hands him a ticket for the bus and he spends a couple of sentences evaluating the significance of how she handed the tickets to him.

And there’s a snow globe that shows up meaningfully in a few scenes but the purpose, or symbolism, of which I never figured out. It may just be another Rosebud (Citizen Kane) kind of thing. I’m open to discussion.

I have been dying to get the paperback, pull out my highlighters and outline it. So, when I heard about the Amazon Smile program from Terrie Moran on Facebook, that was all the excuse I needed to order.

Because this is stuff I am focusing on: not just the mystery puzzle but the people puzzle, how they all fit together. A musician told me once, without a baseline, you don’t have a song. The baseline gives the song structure, like the foundation of a house. These character arcs are the base line of our melodies. Because without a character caring about solving the mystery, there is no story. I am grateful to Black for doing these so well.




10 thoughts on “Anticipation”

  1. I was not in high school when the song was popular, and I started humming in as soon as I saw this title. 🙂

    My critique group often busts me for making the characters do something because the plot needs it. When I let them act organically according to the state of their relationships it often changes the plot – but it makes for a better story.


  2. Well, I can see that I’m going to have to check out that book! This resonated with me on so many levels, but here’s just one: a class I’m taking gave me an interesting exercise to write a scene through the eyes of the main character and include a secondary character. Then write the same scene again, except change the secondary character. It was a fascinating exercise to see how things change, just from changing the character relationship.


  3. Great thought-filled post. I went right over to my public library’s web site and checked out “A Death in Summer” audio book. Can’t wait to start listening. Thanks


  4. Thanks, all! Peg: I’ve only read one of his “literary” works. I didn’t like it as much because there wasn’t a puzzle but gorgeous prose. He really is quite the poet. He is known for not writing plot-driven. If you’re going to get into the Quirke series, start with the first book, Christine Falls. There’s a character and plot arc throughout the entire series so it’d be easier to follow starting at the beginning. I read the last one first and that took some of the fun out of it.


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