Dublin pathologist Garrett Quirke’s investigations in the dreary ‘50s bring him, an orphan, into many situations where families hide secrets of paternity, maternity, loyalty, and betrayal. John Banville’s alter ego Benjamin Black shares Banville’s acclaimed command of atmosphere from his erudite, dense, and intellectual novels; this fifth installment of “Quirke Mysteries” moves into similarly complex motivations. Yet their focus upon a repressed and dingy Irish city under the grip of economic malaise, political corruption, and ecclesiastical dominance enables Black to craft a explore Quirke’s evolution as a flawed character, battling drink and searching for solutions to the lives of others if not his own, which unravels even as he carries on, like all the living.
Not trained as a detective, Quirke relies on Inspector Hackett, the typical up-from-the-country recruit to the police turned supervisor of hapless trainees. The two meet and reckon with the deaths that come their way. This time, in Vengeance, business tycoon Victor Delahaye, from the Protestant gentry, shoots himself while sailing with his Catholic (on paper equal but in reality subordinate) partner Jack Clancy’s son, Davy. Quirke handles Victor’s corpse, and probes into why he came to such an end.
“I have a great curiosity,” Quirke explains to an uneasy wife. “If I were a cat, I’d have been dead long ago.” His travels keep him mainly in Dublin, but a journey shows him the rest of a rundown Ireland: “The huge sky over the Midlands was piled high with luminous wreckage.” Even nature looks grim.
Quirke and Hackett’s half-driven, half-detached forays, along with interludes by Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, propel much of the plot. The feline, much younger widow Mona Delahaye, along with Victor’s sullen sister Maggie, and Victor’s glacial twin sons Jonas and James, complicate the proceedings. So does a woman who hints at a James Joyce allusion or two in the shadows, Bella Wintour. We also meet British-born Sylvia, and her husband, Jack himself.
Without giving away the storyline, this novel moves smoothly, more so than the previous A Death in Summer. Black as in the best of the series, The Silver Swan, excels at conjuring up eccentrics. While Quirke’s debut, Christine Falls, set up standard procedure as Quirke faced his own family secrets and learned to untangle those of other Irish caught in their own deceit, it turned so intricate that it lacked energy to sustain its conspiratorial, clerical machinations. Number three, An Elegy for April, worked better, as it more gracefully told a maturation of Quirke with his reconciled daughter Phoebe, as well as capturing the danger of being an outsider—this time an African student—in insular postwar Dublin.
Similarly, while outliers in Vengeance appear more tame if sly, the class distinctions between the gentry and the common folk persist. For instance, the bearish, middle-aged Quirke dallies in these pages with a mistress, the actress Isabel Galloway, whom he had abandoned in a previous novel. “Their lovemaking had felt to him more like a surgical procedure. Isabel had thrust herself angrily against him, all elbows, ribs, and bared teeth. Now she sat there furious in her painted gown like an Oriental empress about to order his beheading.”
Black as Banville keeps that writer’s ability to indirectly express a character’s body and mind, revealing Quirke’s unease out of his element, in social situations or in his physical demeanor. After making love with Mona, Quirke on leaving her estate “saw himself as a kind of clown, in outsize trousers and long, bulbous shoes, staggering this way and that between two laughing teams of white-clad players, jumping clumsily, vainly, for the ball they kept lobbing over his head with negligent, mocking ease. Yes, he would find out.” It takes him a while, as it always does in the Black mysteries, and often it appears things fall into place around him as he observes or reacts to them, rather than him serving as the catalyst. In his sly way, he determines, with Hackett, to get the twins, and to break the funereal bond that silences those who know among both Delahaye and Clancy clans.
Phoebe, Quirke’s reconciled daughter, agrees. But she holds those families, Hackett, reporters, and any—even her own father—who root out the causes of the two deaths which ensue as suspect. “They pretended, all of them, to be after the facts, truth, justice, but what they desired in the end was really just to satisfy their curiosity,” As one mordant witness muses after a burial: “The dead get so much more than their share of praise, she thought, and all just for being dead.” Jack Clancy’s son, Davy, makes the most telling observation: “You don’t put a bullet in your heart unless there’s something seriously the matter.” This acerbic tone sharpens the book in typically Irish fashion, as backbiting shoves into indirection and caroms off of bluntness.
The questions hidden in Delahaye’s motives and those of whomever killed off the second character keep three-hundred pages turning smoothly. As with earlier Quirke mysteries, a death opens it, a hundred-odd pages gradually connect those around the cadaver, and at the halfway point fifty pages later, a complication happens. The weakness of certain Quirke tales—of two-hundred pages of coasting past rich settings and engaging conversations yet filled with dead-ends and red-herrings, ending in fifteen pages with a sudden climax and hasty wrap-up—is less present here, if not entirely absent.
The author plays it fair, gives the hints, and spins out Quirke and Hackett’s quest efficiently. Banville as Black manages to sustain the story with a steadier structure that masks some scaffolding. While I suspect he played out a well-worn dodge to explain the mystery, this may betray Black’s send-up of the genre. The steady pace of this series and the relative detachment of Quirke in this showing may betray his weariness as well as the author’s in producing not only his “Banville” Continental-style fiction but his quirky mysteries on a yearly basis. All the same, number five in the series proves, alongside The Silver Swan, a solid read.