Clerical Connivance in Dreary Dublin: Benjamin Black’s ‘Holy Orders’

[14 August 2013]

By John L. Murphy

With the sixth installment in John Banville’s busman’s holiday writing as Benjamin Black, pathologist Quirke with a side pursuit as amateur detective risks resembling a brooding houseguest intent on staying. Banville’s erudite, Continental-style novels of ideas, with characters trapped within history by their own haunted compromises, continue to differ thematically from his mysteries set in 50s-era Dublin.

However, as Black’s “Quirke novels” have met with a wider following than his mannered, dour ones, loyal readers such as myself may sense Quirke merging with Banville’s louche protagonists. Black’s prose, which initially appeared to distinguish “genre” from Banville’s “literary” fiction has evolved by now more similarities than contrasts. What still may set this protagonist apart from his creator’s other characters may be his troubled, resilient self. It sustains Quirke through more tales than those given Banville’s anguished men—although some of those revive or reappear in Banville’s novels, which continue apace.

Still, the Quirke franchise needed a jolt. The setup in Christine Falls introduced Quirke, and the delayed reaction by Phoebe as they meet again, long after Quirke’s decision to pass off his daughter to his sister and her husband to raise as their own. The Silver Swan, of the five my favorite, met with muted enthusiasm among some, but I enjoyed its tawdry evocation of deluded Dubliners craving esoteric wisdom. Secrecy represses Irish society, often amidst those seeking status or having obtained it trying to keep it, and the whiff of corruption remains pungent, more than the chemicals within Quirke’s morgue, whereas Black’s novels progress the doctor appears to spend less and less time.

Phoebe’s doctor friend April Latimer vanishes in the poignant Elegy for April. Midstream in this series, cub reporter Jimmy Minor assumes a supporting role, along with Phoebe’s boyfriend and Quirke’s colleague David Sinclair. The predicament of those marginalized within Catholic culture, the few Jewish citizens such as Sinclair, and in Elegy for April, the plight of international students, receive probing attention as Black scrutinizes the cutting or cruel mores of the economically troubled and very suspicious nation which at this period raised him as Banville.

Dislocation follows in A Death in Summer, and it opens splendidly. But I found its elegant saunter languid compared with the previous two city tales. Black starts off strong, lets the energy simmer, parades a series of suspects for Police Inspector Hackett and his part-partner to seek out, and then solves the puzzle in the final fifteen pages adroitly. Even if Death succeeded in its arch tone as it pursued skulduggery among the gentry, I prefer the down and dirty Dublin settings. The darker alleys force Black to peer at the grime where he must confront a dismal postwar malaise.

Vengeance again begins with brio, as Black finds a suitably vixenish foil to unnerve Quirke. In advanced middle age, he’s resigned to the arms of an aging actress, Isabel, after his wife’s death. Battling the bottle, worse for wear, he’s determined to continue his tiring avocation.

Jimmy Minor, April and Phoebe’s friend, had worked as a junior reporter for a Dublin paper. His boyish corpse, fished out of the River Liffey, opens this latest novel. With the suggestive title of Holy Orders, the connivance of a compliant, cowed government with the lordly Church in this oppressive era of postwar Irish history looms; it’s very difficult to shake the sensation that this novel is not happening over a half-century later, amidst continued revelations of clerical abuse and conspiracy.

In a dramatic, harrowing scene, overcome at a priests’ gloomy residence by his childhood memories from a feral Catholic orphanage, Quirke’s heart seems to burst. As if a bird fluttering from inside his ribcage, the bewildered sufferer peers out at thieving magpies and hovering blackbirds. Black conjures doom compactly. It resounds through the calmly told chapters of this confident novel.

Quirke’s vertigo and hallucinations pierce this novel to prickle to the reader’s response to mystery. “He went out to the living room. A parallelogram of insipid sunlight lay on the floor under a window like the parts of a broken kite. He stood and looked about himself, feeling dazed. The morning’s watercolor tints lent a novel sheen to familiar surfaces. Everything was as it always was, yet somehow he could recognize nothing. It was as if all that was formerly here had been swept away in the night and replaced with a shiny new version of itself, identical in every aspect, yet one-dimensional and hollow, like props in a fantastically detailed stage setting.”

Phoebe notices her father’s altered state, accentuating his habitual tendency to peer out at the world as if through the eyes of the disappointed child he was in the orphanage. While the novel relies on an omniscient, indirect narrative via Quirke, Black sidles into her perspective. Through her unease with Jimmy’s twin sister, Sally, Phoebe’s own self fractures. “She felt as if one whole side of her life was shearing off and toppling into the sea.”

Hints of Joyce’s Ulysses linger: cocoa, cinnamon, and pineapple entice Dubliners from their slump. Beckett’s inquiring light which troubled some of his own trapped characters enters, too, more ominously, onto Quirke’s mental stage to illuminate his enigmatic inner vision. By now, readers of a sixth book need no sixth sense to be told why. Quirke simply soldiers on, with handmade Italian shoes trudging the mud of a down-and-out campsite, tracking down if not legal justice than moral recompense, despite his ennui.

Deceit, suspicion, jealousy, doubt: Banville and Black join, through Quirke and Phoebe, the ageless concerns of storytellers. Holy Orders freshens them. May my lack of plot details encourage you to encounter their treatment for yourself, for their evocation proves this to be the most powerful Quirke novel yet. Black’s return from gentry pursuits to Quirke’s inward search, and his concern for what Quirke’s former lover tells him he has, not her husband’s “heart” but the rarer quality of a “soul”, endures to enrich this sixth tale of this haunted Dubliner’s lonely hunt for answers—or partial clues.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/174159-holy-orders-by-benjamin-black/