Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dublin Fog: The Crime Noir Novels of Benjamin Black

Novelist John Banville, aka Benjamin Black, author of the Quirke detective novels ( Photograph: Cyril Byrne)

I suspect that most readers of the mystery genre anticipate that whatever heinous crimes are committed that they will be solved by clever, intuitive police work and that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. That kind of reassurance cannot be found in the novels of Benjamin Black, aka the Irish Booker Prize winner, John Banville. In the six Quirke Dublin mysteries that Black has written – Christine Falls (2006), The Silver Swan (2008), Elegy For April (2010), A Death in Summer (2011) Vengeance (2012) and Holy Orders (2013, Henry Holt and Company) – the scales of justice are frequently tipped to deny justice to murder victims because of official incompetence, the protection of perpetrators by powerful interests who are bent on “hiding the damage,” or suicide to avoid the courts. Then what is the attraction for reading these novels? Well, if the reader can accept the fact that the identity of the perpetrator is secondary to other considerations, it turns out that there are many reasons.

Black’s shapely prose and striking imagery guarantee the novels will be beautifully written. His style is more accessible than in Banville’s literary novels where cadence and rhythm are its hallmark, but he still is a master at crafting luminous language and conveying psychological insight. Consider Black’s description of Quirke (like Inspector Morse, he is only known by his surname) in Elegy For April, the sympathetic but flawed pathologist-cum-detective, who enters a drying out clinic after a six-month drinking binge, even though drinking was preferable to a “daily unblurred confrontation with a self he heartily wishes to avoid.” Or consider his Gothic description of the horse-drawn cars for the tourists: “In the fog they had a spectral air, the horses standing unnaturally still with heads lowered dejectedly and the caped and top-hatted drivers perched in attitudes of motionless expectancy on their high seats, as if awaiting imminent word to set off for the Borgo Pass or Dr. Jekyll’s rooms.” This last image of the Dublin fog is especially effective in a city in which secrets are shielded from the vast majority of the people. Readers, however, should not expect a Quirke novel to be a dialogue-driven first person account even though Black has demonstrated that facility in his 2014 Raymond Chandler pastiche, The Black-Eyed Blonde.

Another compelling reason for reading the novels is Black’s stunning evocation of 1950s claustrophobic, conservative Dublin with its dank weather outside and drafty flats inside, its boozy and smoky bars and its terrible food. Anyone familiar with the city will derive pleasure from Black’s delineation of its geography – its street names, canals, bridges, hotels, parks – but what stands out is its stifling atmosphere generated by the tightly clamped down control of the Catholic Church, the institution that defined and exemplified post-colonial Ireland. Anyone who has not read any of the Quirke novels, but has seen the recent film Philomena and its searing indictment of the Church for its antediluvian attitudes, particularly for “fallen” women, will come away more enlightened or outraged by Black's portrait of 1950s Dublin. Although the details are different, both the film and the first, and one of the strongest novels in the series, Christine Falls, capture the exploitative nature of the Church. In the film, the nuns lock up the fallen women in one of the notorious Magdalene laundries where they are put to work and allowed to visit their children for only an hour each day. Within a few years, the nuns sell the children to wealthy Americans for a tidy profit. In the novel, babies are spirited away from unwed or dead mothers and shipped to the transatlantic diaspora of wealthy Irish Bostonians for the purpose, as one character says, of “planting souls” so that one day they can serve as the shock troops of the Church. Protecting the Church are mafia-like warriors who comprise a clandestine organisation and provide whatever muscle is needed to intimidate and silence inquisitive outsiders who could interfere with the Church’s mission.

The hidebound Dublin that Black evokes is prejudicial to outsiders. In Christine Falls, the extended family of the teenager, Phoebe, is so resolute about destroying her relationship with a Prod (Protestant) that she is hustled off to Boston. In Elegy for April, one of Phoebe’s friends, a young Nigerian doctor, who becomes persona non grata – a person without any rights of due process – is a victim of blatant racism. In A Death in Summer, the murder of a Jewish tycoon evokes vestiges of anti-Semitism that results not only in hurling nasty epithets but in a serious beating of Quirke’s Jewish young assistant.

One of those outsiders happens to be Quirke himself, the hard-drinking, dour bachelor pathologist. An orphan, he was saved from a harrowing fate when the country’s chief justice, Garret Griffin, took a liking to him as a child and raised him in his own household. But Quirke’s early life in an orphanage and later in a so-called industrial school, where he was physically, emotionally and, most likely, sexually abused by the Catholic Brothers, has cast a dark shadow over his life. It has scarred his relationship with women – even though he is tall, handsome and irresistible to women – and almost everyone else. He has long felt a more comfortable relationship with the dead people he encounters on the autopsy table than those alive around him. And yet that devastating primal experience bequeathed to him an inquisitive mind. “The source of his itch to know was that the world…was never what it seemed, was always more than it appeared to be. He had learned that early on. To take reality as it presented itself was to miss an entirely other reality hidden behind.” In Christine Falls, Quirke’s curiosity about the circumstances of Christine’s death led him into the dark heart of his family and to ignore warnings from two thugs and the Church’s evil overseer – the menacing Costigan – which almost cost him his life. Black’s ongoing character study of Quirke may be the most compelling reason for reading the series.

Quirke is the adopted brother to Malachy, a leading gynaecologist in the first few novels, a youngish shambolic retiree in the later books. Twenty years earlier the brothers married a privileged pair of New England sisters. After Quirke’s wife, Delia, the wilder and harder of the two sisters, died in childbirth, Quirke gave her baby to his sister-in-law, Sarah, the woman he really loved but lost because of his stupidity. When Christine Falls opens, Phoebe is nearly twenty and doesn’t yet know the truth about her parentage. She thinks that Quirke is her uncle and has a relaxed relationship with him. Quirke accompanies Phoebe overseas where she is put in danger (a scenario that happens in almost every one of the novels), By the end of the novel, that easy comfort has been shattered and the subsequent offerings delineate their efforts to establish a new, albeit fraught and awkward, relationship. He has a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, regrets it immediately, apologizes and does not seem to know how to move forward. I would recommend, however, starting at the beginning since more details about Quirke’s complex feelings toward Delia surface throughout the series.

The Silver Swan begins two years later. Phoebe is angry and alienated with almost everyone as she is still trying to process Quirke’s shocking revelations about her parentage. If Christine Falls is an angry book about the depredations of the Catholic Church, The Silver Swan is a sadder book that is set amid the seediness of Dublin. The novel’s plot of blackmail, nude photos and murders bears some resemblance to Marlow’s The Big Sleep. The action begins when Billy Hunt, a former classmate from medical school who is now a pharmaceutical salesman, asks Quirke to skip doing a post-mortem. Hunt’s wife Deirdre has apparently committed suicide by drowning, and the grieving husband can’t bear the thought of her being further mutilated by an autopsy. Quirke reluctantly acquiesces – until he notices a needle puncture in the dead woman’s arm. Quirke chooses to keep this quiet and investigate her death himself. Like the first novel, “Quirke was aware of the old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hidden – to know.” Unlike the other novels, Black runs Quirke’s private investigation on a parallel track with the victim’s own story, told in intimate flashbacks. This device allows Black to limn a more sympathetic portrait of a woman who clawed her way out of a hardscrabble early life to open a fashionable beauty shop. Along the way, however, she makes a mismatched marriage, has an affair with her unscrupulous business partner and falls under the sway of a bogus spiritual healer setting her up for blackmail, drugs, financial loss and for murder. Quirke’s investigations do more to reveal his confusions around women and his troubled and melancholy character than provide clarity about the case. Psychology rather than crime solving is Black’s primary interest.

Elegy for April is more in keeping with the atmospherics of Black’s first novel in that it focuses on a powerful well-connected Dublin family that includes a current Minister of Health and a deceased revolutionary patriot. April Latimer, a junior doctor and estranged from her family, has gone missing, and only her friends seemed to care. One of them is Phoebe who inveigles her father to investigate her disappearance. Quirke, who is once again attracted by the chasm between appearance and reality, agrees, enlisting the aid of a policeman friend, the "genially piercing" Inspector Hackett, while the family, particularly April’s brother, a leading gynaecologist, is determined to put every obstacle it can in Quirke’s way and avoid a scandal that would sully its reputation. Without revealing details, Quirke uncovers a terrible secret in this family and perhaps more than any of the other novels, validates Quirke’s belief in the disjunction between appearance and reality. I think it also underscores Black’s belief in what constitutes the greatest harm, apart from murder, that one can inflict upon another human being.

After the complex plotting and startling revelations of the first three novels, Death in Summer and Vengeance are disappointing. Black is becoming too predictable, and the languid pacing that seemed to suit the earlier novels has become more sluggish to the point of draining the novels of their vitality. Both of these novels begin with the death of a powerful business man; in Death a murder is supposed to look like suicide while the opening chapter of Vengeance ends with a suicide. In both novels Quirke will have a tryst with the widow. At least in Death the scourge of anti-Semitism is explored and the menacing Costigan makes another appearance with a politely-veiled warning to Quirke. The pathologist is almost a secondary character in Vengeance, which is primarily a riff on an Agatha Christie closed-house mystery. The suspects are the members of two rival families that harbour secrets and jealousies and have a callous disregard for anyone apart from certain immediate family members. They include an eerie pair of identical twins, Jonas and James, the sons of the suicidal father, charming on the surface but in reality cold and calculating. The most moving part is their drugging of Phoebe and Quirke’s anger at the carelessness of the hapless widow for not being aware of what her stepsons were doing to Phoebe. Beyond Quirke’s working out the resolution to the crime, what interests us most is the troubled man himself. He is still weighed down by his demons but needs a catalyst that will serve to motivate him to address them before he falls into the abyss.

In his most recent Quirke novel, Holy Orders, Black has recovered his mojo. The pacing has quickened and more attention is paid to plot, which pays off in emotional dividends. The outrage we felt over the injustices inflicted by the Irish Church in Christine Falls is rekindled in this novel as Quirke edges closer than he has previously in confronting his own inner turmoil.

Gabriel Byrne as Detective Quirke, on BBC's Quirke
A journalist is brutally assaulted, killed and dumped in a canal. Phoebe was a friend of the dead man who may have been close to exposing some church-related scandal. The case revolves around a charismatic and pedophilic priest and a gang of Gypsy “tinkers.” The investigations by Quirke and his detective friend Hackett lead them to visit Trinity Manor where Quirke is flooded with memories of his early emotionally crippled childhood. He recalls that beatings were never as bad as “a special kind of fear that Nike installed, intimate, warm and clammy and faintly indecent.” Quirke begins to mentally disintegrate through hallucinations, panic attacks and disorientation becoming “a mystery to himself, now more than ever.” The sense of being haunted also follows Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, who takes in a stranger, Sally, who turns out to be Jimmy Minor’s sister. They talk of Quirke, and Phoebe admits that she doesn’t really know her father and probably never would. She describes him as “obsessed with the past as if there’s a little boy hiding inside him and looking out through adult eyes at the world, trying to understand it and failing.” Given the darkness that envelops Quirke and the newly discovered but unsettling passion within Phoebe and her talk of moving to London, this series may be at a turning point. Black will likely have surprises in store for his readers.

In the meantime, in North America we can anticipate with pleasure that the BBC is filming the series. The first three novels have already been shown in the UK, as Quirke,  with Gabriel Byrne aptly cast as the detective.

Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. You can find more at his website:

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