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'Elegy for April': Benjamin Black's New Dublin Noir

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Friday, Apr 23, 2010
John Banville's alter ego resurrects Quirke in another 1950s Dublin noir adventure.
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Elegy for April

Benjamin Black

(Henry Holt; US: Apr 2010)

Family ties, as a verb, here. Fog shrouds Dublin, secrets haunt their keepers, and, under John Banville’s pen, intimacy once more curdles into revenge, hatred, and murder.


Christine Falls I much preferred for its characters and mood rather than its mundane, if convoluted, plot. I favored The Silver Swan for its more exotic touches, and its elaborate focus on Quirke’s battle with the bottle. (In this and in the evocation of portside Irish cities, it reminds me of Ken Bruen’s Galway noir Jack Taylor series, on the other side of the island in our globalizing, gentrifying decade, nearly unrecognizable as sharing territory with Quirke’s domain. Still, the decay continues.)


John Banville writing as Benjamin Black enriches this third installment with meditations on mortality, night terrors, dreams gone wrong, and always the fog creeping in, staying inside after it sneaks in a door so a wisp stays like an “ectoplasm.” The tug of families and their indiscretions, the public face hiding the private sin, as in so many Irish stories, blankets this mystery.
  
“Grains of mica glittered in the granite of the steps; strange, these little secret gleanings, under the fog.”(4) Some of the author’s best writing as either Banville or Black can be found here, which is saying something. Quirke grows on you, and you want his own fumbling reaching out for love from his daughter and from his new lover to succeed. I miss his co-worker Sinclair’s jibes, and there’s comparatively little time at his job at the morgue this time, but you gain more appreciation of his domestic life, or its lack: “Quirke’s flat had the sheepish and resentful air of an unruly classroom suddenly silenced by the unexpected return of the teacher.”(33)


Black moves among a few characters for indirect first person narration in Joycean style. This helps widen our familiarity with 1950s Dublin, and the tone shifts subtly. Via Patrick Ojukwu from Nigeria, we imagine what it was like to live in Ireland then. No bribes exacted by the natives, “but neither would they take you seriously. That was what puzzled him most of all, the way they mocked and jeered at everything and everyone, themselves included. Yet the laughter could stop without warning, when you least expected. Then suddenly you would find yourself alone in the midst of a circle of them, all of them looking at you, blank-eyed and silently accusing, even though you did not know what it was you were being accused of.”(210)


The first third sets the scene and sets up the mystery; the second part broadens the suspects; the final third accelerates and the last 15 pages hasten to bring it all together. It’s done briskly but without any cheating, and I found it rather hasty, but in the spirit of many mysteries, such is their pace. I recommend Elegy for April; while it can be read on its own, those who enjoyed the earlier books will benefit the most from another few hours with Quirke, Phoebe, Hackett, and their new circle among the “little band” and those it widens to encompass in another circle.


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