This, my friends, is a very classy entertainment. Dark, certainly: Benjamin Black is no cheerful read. On the final page of the novel our wounded protagonist Dr. Quirke sums up the previous 300 pages to Detective Inspector Hackett:
‘It isn’t much, is it,’ he said. ‘Costigan, and a couple of thugs, and a rotten priest transferred?’
‘It’s the times, Dr. Quirke, and the place. We haven’t grown up yet, here on this tight little island. But we do what we can, you and I. That’s all we can do.’”
You won’t find that much of a comfort, but if you’re looking for sweetness and light you shouldn’t be visiting Black’s mid-twentieth century Dublin, as seen through the jaundiced eye of pathologist Dr. Quirke and his complicated network of friends, enemies, and family. (Often all the same in one body.) He’s almost as depressing as those ghoulish Swedes. But for me the redemption is in the faint sliver of light provided by Quirke’s mostly good intentions and, to a much greater extent, in the writing.
Benjamin Black is, of course, John Banville moonlighting, and having what appears to be a perfectly wonderful time. He can’t seem to help it: he tosses off local color like, “Far out, a pallid sun broke through the clouds and set two burly pillars of light standing astride the sea.” Or our first view of Quirke: “Teetering along on those absurdly dainty feet of his the big man seemed not so much to walk as to stumble forward heavily, limping slightly; it was as if he had tripped over something a long way back and were still trying to regain his balance.” Happily, these flights of color don’t interfere with the story telling, though this is a novel where the atmosphere and characters dominate the plot. Yes, there is a murder; newspaper magnate Richard Jewell’s head is blown off with his own shotgun, and made to look like a suicide. Yes, there are suspects: Jewell’s wife, his disturbed sister Dannie, his chief business rival. I suppose the book could be classed as a procedural since the crime is ultimately survived by the efforts of Quirke and the froglike Inspector Hackett. But the plot developments aren’t startling. You can see them coming a mile away. Heavens, if I say “orphanage” and “priest,” you’ve pretty well got it. Nevertheless, Black’s imagined Dublin and its ruined citizens kept me turning the pages. Along with passages like this, in which Quirke falls hard for the French widow of the murder victim:
… Quirke’s increasingly agitated spirit led him helplessly on into ever deeper excesses of amorous folly. He felt like a stony hearted old roué embarrassingly shackled to a lovesick youth… France, now, not just France the country but France the idea, suddenly loomed large for him, as if he had been running a magnifying glass idly over a map of the world and had come to a wobbly stop on that big ghost-shaped mass at the western edge of Europe. He had only to take a sip of claret and he was there, in a Midi of the mind, under dappled vine leaves, smelling the dust and the garlic…
The passage goes on, embroidering, picking up momentum like Quirke tripping over his own feet. Then the plot resumes, “excesses of amorous folly and all.”