When John Banville isn’t writing beautiful, dense, philosophical prose in novels such as The Sea, Ancient Light, The Infinities, or The Book of Evidence, he’s writing equally beautiful but slightly less abstruse prose – good old-fashioned crime novels, in fact – under the pen-name Benjamin Black. Banville writes as Benjamin Black in part to distract him from the burden of being John Banville, and he writes them during the summer for the simple reason that he doesn’t like the season and needs something to do. While a John Banville novel might take three to five years to write (Banville is a notoriously slow writer: sometimes he writes as little as two sentences a day), a Benjamin Black novel comes awfully fast – three or four months.
Banville was inspired to try his hand at crime-writing after reading some books by Georges Simenon, and at the gentle prodding of his agent, Ed Victor (Victor may have had an ulterior motive – he is the agent for the estate of Raymond Chandler, and he finally convinced Banville/Black to have a go at a Philip Marlowe detective story. The result is the very excellent The Black-Eyed Blonde). Black’s most famous creation, Quirke, is a morose, hard-drinking Dublin pathologist who sticks his nose in where it isn’t wanted, getting embroiled with the city’s business and political elite. Dublin is both geographically and psychologically a small town, even more so in the small-minded 1950s in which the Quirke novels are set. This is a city still governed by a class system that can be mystifying to an outsider, and for all its attempts at modernity, still ruled in spirit by the Catholic Church.
While Banville has made a conscious effort in his career to be a European novelist of ideas (something that put off some critics in Ireland, who felt he had somehow turned his back on the place), his alter-ego is most decidedly Irish. The Quirke novels are more than mere diversionary crime thrillers; as well as being excellently-written in carefully chosen prose, they are also examinations of some of Ireland’s harder truths: the unfettered power of the Church; the Magdalene Laundries; the Industrial Schools; the engrained prejudice against Travellers.
Quirke has had to battle the medical, legal and political establishments of upper-middle class Dublin, mostly because his own family is a firm fixture of the city’s respectable facade. Quirke’s complicated family entanglements include his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin (a rather pompous obstetrician), Malachy’s father, Judge Griffin (who was also Quirke’s adoptive father), Malachy’s wife Sarah Crawford (who Quirke was in love with), her sister Delia (who was married to Quirke, and who died giving birth), and Phoebe, Quirke’s daughter, who was raised by Malachy and Sarah and who never knew that Quirke was her father. If this seems a little too much, don’t worry: Black does an excellent job of laying it all out, doling out information and revelations in small doses.
Elegy for April, the third novel, is by far the best in the series. The plot is initially quite straightforward: Phoebe’s friend April Latimer has gone missing; she’s a junior doctor at the hospital where Quike and Malachy work. Phoebe asks Quirke to ask around about her – it turns out she has “a reputation”, but the case of her disappearance is complicated due to the fact that her family is politically well-connected, and already well-known to Quirke. In another crime novel it might be a stretch to have your protagonist already know practically every one of the potential suspects, but again, this is Dublin, a city that can feel like a village all too often.
When we first meet Quirke he is in what they used to call a drying-out clinic, and for this particular drunk, it’s all too much.
Quirke had never known life so lacking in savour. In his first days at St. John’s he had been in too much confusion and distress to notice how everything here seemed leached of colour and texture; gradually, however, the deadness pervading the place began to fascinate him. Nothing at St. John’s could be grasped or held. It was as if the fog that had been so frequent since the autumn had settled permanently here, outdoors and in, a thing present everywhere and yet without substance, and always at a fixed distance from the eye however quickly one moved. Not that anyone moved quickly in this place, not among the inmates, anyway. Inmates was a frowned-upon word, but what else could they be called, these uncertain, hushed figures, of which he was one, padding dully along the corridors and about the grounds like shell-shock victims?
After checking himself out and returning to his flat, which “had the sheepish and resentful air of an unruly classroom suddenly silenced by the unexpected return of the teacher.” Quirke decides that he should finally learn how to drive, and buys himself a car. He doesn’t buy any old banger; he buys an Alvis, “a magnificent machine, black, gleaming, low-slung, displaying a restrained elegance in every line.”
Banville has always been very good at writing characters who are unnerved or undone by inanimate objects – many of his characters trip over furniture or injure themselves with bread-knives and so on, and Quirke is no different. Quirke masters driving quite easily, but parking is something else, and his acquaintances (he doesn’t really have friends) are bewildered and amused at the idea of him driving.
I mention the car only because it ends up playing an important part of the plot, which soon becomes complicated because of Phoebe’s other friends. Jimmy Minor is a newspaper reporter for the Evening Mail with the affected air of someone who has seen too many films about journalists: “Crimes to expose, stories to concoct, reputations to besmirch – no rest for the busy newshound.” Patrick Ojukwu is a Nigerian medical student both loved and envied by his Dublin friends (Phoebe thinks he is beautiful, and is convinced that April slept with him).
It was April who had met Ojukwu first and introduced him to the little band … They were all, even Jimmy, secretly gratified to have amongst them a person so handsome, so exotic and so black. They liked the sense his presence in their midst gave to them of being sophisticated and cosmopolitan, though none of the four except Phoebe had travelled farther abroad than London. They welcomed too, with grim satisfaction, the looks they got when they were in his company, by turns outraged, hate-filled, fearful, envious.
The last member of Phoebe’s “little band” is an actress, Isabel Galloway. In many ways she is typical of the female characters that Banville is partial to creating, a patrician beauty possessed of a wild, uncanny streak. It doesn’t take long for Quirke to end up in her bed.
Later he would not remember if he saw, that first time, how lovely she was, in her sly, languid, feline way. He was too busy adjusting himself to the steady light of her candid regard; as she sat and gazed at him he felt like a slow old moose caught in the cross-hairs of a polished and very powerful rifle. Her self-possession alarmed him; it was the result, he imagined, of her actor’s training. She seemed to be amused at something large and ongoing, a marvellously absurd cavalcade, of which, he suspected, he was just now a part.
April’s disappearance soon becomes suspicious, and Quirke has several run-ins with her powerful family. He is recruited by his sometime associate, Inspector Hackett, whose jovial country-boy demeanour masks a canny mind. Hackett needs Quirke to access the upper echelons of Dublin society. One of the things that Elegy for April does very well is describe the subtle ways in which class, wealth and power operate in Irish life.
Apart from the central mystery, there is a wonderful evocation of atmosphere in the novel. It is set during a foggy February, and Black, like seemingly every Irish writer, is obsessed with the weather. “The mist had penetrated the hall and a faint swathe of it hung motionless like ectoplasm on the stairs” goes a line that you’d expect to come across in a gothic romance, not necessarily a murder mystery.
The spectral fog is apt. In many ways, this is a gloomy book. Quirke is something of a maudlin figure, haunted by the death of his wife, and of the lie he has told Phoebe for all her life, and haunted too by his miserable childhood at an institution called Carricklea. Like many detectives, Quirke is given to existential despair.
He was calm, as if something, some perpetually turning motor in his head, had been switched to a lower, slower gear. How sweet it was for a little while not to think, merely to lean there, above the street, hearing the soft beating of his own heart, remembering the warmth of the bed that he would soon return to. Despite the stillness of the air the canal was moving, the water brimming at both banks and wrinkled like silver paper, and here came – look! – two swans, gliding sedately side by side, dipping their long necks as they moved, a pair of silent creatures, white as the moon and moving amidst the moon’s shattered white reflections on the water.
But there are also tremendous pleasures, particularly in the look, feel and smell of the 1950s that Black has recreated, a time of great heavy bakelite phones, outsized mackintoshes, Passing Clouds and Player’s cigarettes, Swan Vesta matches, Hilton and Michael at the Gate Theatre, flats that seem to permanently smell of gas, and a wireless that needs to warm up before any music will come from it.
The first three Quirke novels were adapted by the BBC and starred Gabriel Byrne. Physically, he’s nothing like the Quirke of the books, but he has captured the man’s glum demeanour and sense of anger. I found the adaptations to be okay, but not great. Elegy for April is the best of the three – it was adapted by Conor MacPherson, and it was nice to see my old college pal Aidan McArdle (no relation).