I’m a little suspicious about Benjamin Black/John Banville’s rate of production here. Holy Orders is his most recent Quirke mystery, apparently released in August, a year after Vengeance. Yet in March we’ll see The Black-Eyed Blonde, in which Black follows in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler. Leaving aside my skepticism about the current publishing fad for retooling old franchises, is it possible that Black has taken on too much work? Did he neglect Quirke to explore Marlowe? Holy Orders seems to suggest so.
We’re back in smoky complicated 1950s Dublin. Pathologist Quirke is once again stumbling through an investigation fueled by cigarettes and a shocking amount of liquor. I’ve always enjoyed Black’s leisurely pace and virtuoso writing but this installment in the series feels somewhat pro forma. A body is fished up from a canal. It turns out to be Jimmy Minor, a friend of Quirke’s daughter Phoebe. The assumption is that Jimmy, a newspaper reporter, was killed to prevent him from pursuing an investigation. Priests are involved, of course. So are gypsies, providing a shot of exoticism and a glossary of foreign terms tucked into the dialogue like plums in a fruit cake.
It struck me as odd that the gypsy characters used their language only for nouns in Quirke’s presence, but by then I was disenchanted. I mean that literally; the spell of the fiction had dissipated. The puzzle part of the mystery was disappointingly thin and predictable. Quirke’s peculiar perception of the world — which has always been one of the strengths of these books — is distorted in Holy Orders by strange sensations, languidly described. He has hallucinations, vivid and multi-sensory. The book ends with Quirke in a neurologist’s office, about to hear the verdict on a brain scan. Tumor? I’m betting on florid migraines. I hope the doc can prescribe something to straighten Quirke out, but I suspect fatigue is really the issue.