Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Quirke Quadruplet

“You think you’ve seen the worst of the world, but the world and its wicked ways can always surprise you.”

I recently received an ARC of Benjamin Black's newest novel Vengeance (published in the US in August and reviewed in my next post)  and started reading it, but I was so confused!  I had no clue as to who these people are and their backstories, and it drove me a little crazy.   Some years back I had read his Christine Falls and The Silver Swan, but hundreds of books in between later, my recollection of what had happened in those novels was totally nil.  So to do Vengeance justice, I grabbed the four Quirke novels I already have and decided to read them in one lump. But before I get to this Quirke-y quadruplet, here's my take on the author and the series.

John Banville, aka Benjamin Black

the author
 In his more literary life, Black is really John Banville, whose The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, and whose new novel, Ancient Light, is sitting on a shelf here waiting to be read for posting on the literary side of my reading journal.   Benjamin Black likes crime novels, although the ones he writes are a bit heavier on the more noirish, existentialist side.   This came as no surprise when I did a little research on Benjamin Black and discovered that  "the impetus for Black" followed after author John Banville was introduced to the roman durs of Georges Simenon -- not the Maigret series, which he calls "slapdash" --  but rather the more "hard novels,"  which Banville states are "superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction."  At the same time, his crime books also contain elements that appeal to readers of more literary-type fiction, including lots of vivid imagery and in the later novels,  literary references for the reader to ponder.    These are not your average crime-series novels, but each installment seems to be part of one big, ongoing story.

the series
 The Quirke novels offer a look at Dublin in the 1950s, where life was pretty much dictated by the bonds tying together  the church, big money, and politics; it's also a place of many secrets and a lot of guilt.  They also address the question of evil in its various forms.   The main character, Quirke, is a pathologist, working in the darker environs of a hospital, which is perfect for him.  He is physically  "built like a bus," and can usually be found wearing his nearly-talismanic black suit, reminding his daughter of  "the blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning.”  When not working, Quirke can be found hanging out  in some pub or another trying not to drink but usually finding his resolve failing.  He's a solitary sort, and doesn't feel like he truly belongs anywhere.  Brought up as an orphan and then moved to a terrible industrial school before being taken in by the Griffin family,   Dublin is "His city, and yet not;"  as he notes, "no matter how many years he might live here there would also be a part of him that was alien."  Alienation is just one theme that carries through all of these books.  Quirke's  job also brings with it a certain amount of curiosity; as he says in the first novel Christine Falls, "Dealing with the dead, you sometimes find yourself wondering about the lives they led."  His need to know how they ended up in his morgue (or what happened to the missing in one case)  often lands him in situations where he finds himself in the role of investigator -- not officially and  usually reluctantly.   He works with Inspector Hackett, who needs Quirke for his ability to get access to those in "high places." Hackett,  though, is not a stupid man -- his experience has taught him how to cut through the crap.  Dublin is not "his city" as it is Quirke's -- Hackett  is biding his time, waiting for  retirement so that he can move back to the country and escape the "soiled associations" of the city. In the meantime, the two realize that outside of working very well together, they really actually know very little of each other, suiting them both just fine.

As one character in Death in Summer says about Quirke: "He thinks a good man can set the world to right, all the while not seeing that the last thing folks want is the world to be as it should be."   The dichotomy between reality "as it presented itself" and another, entirely different and hidden reality is also an ongoing theme,  the "veiled and deceptive nature of things,"  which Quirke tries to penetrate to find the truth. But Quirke sometimes just doesn't get it ... he often glosses over things people say, not realizing that there may be something vitally important in their words, but then again, he's only human, not some kind of detective super hero.  

While trying to find articles about Benjamin Black, I found one about Black's A Death in Summer  I bookmarked it because of this statement which sort of summarizes what you need to know about Quirke and where he falls within already-established crime fiction favorites:

"The quirks of Quirke are reassuringly familiar. He is known only by his surname (Dexter's Morse), is an alcoholic chainsmoker (Rankin's Rebus), loves poetry (PD James's Dalgleish), has a difficult relationship with a daughter (Mankell's Wallander) and has difficulty in sustaining relationships (everyone's everyone). Even the fact that, although a pathologist, his involvement in cases goes well beyond the dissection of the body nods to the convention of the forensic investigator popularised by Silent Witness and Waking the Dead on television and Patricia Cornwell in print."
Now that his books have become so popular, there's also a TV series in the works for the BBC.  Hopefully Americans won't have to wait forever to get a glimpse.

Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, Elegy for April and A Death in Summer (hazy, I know, but what do you expect from an iphone!)

the first four books
So now  it's time for me to turn to the first four books of this series and my brief summaries and my briefer thoughts under each one.   In general, it seems like once Black got past Christine Falls with its most worrisome scenes moving Quirke from Dublin to Boston (which just didn't work for me although I did get what was going on and why Black played things that way), the books just got better. As you read each book, you realize that each one reveals a little more intense scrutiny of 1950s Dublin, of which Black/Banville notes  "it was a hard time, a hard city, and a dark place to live."  The characters never stop developing, either -- just as much as Dublin becomes more of a reality, so too do these people.  Overall, this is a truly great series of novels, very rich in atmosphere and people;  the literary-quality writing is heads above much of what you'll find on current crime fiction shelves in the bookstores.

Picador, 2008
369 pp

Christine Falls is the Quirke series opener, and it begins one night after a hospital party when Quirke has had a little too much to drink.  He comes down to his office to discover  his brother-in-law, obstetrician Malachy (Mal) Griffin writing in the file belonging to a newly-arrived corpse named Christine Falls. But since his head is a little fuzzy, he's not really sure what he's seeing at the time.  Later when he goes back to figure things out, he realizes that Mal has actually been altering the file -- Quirke's autopsy reveals that Christine died while giving birth whereas Mal's alterations show that a pulmonary embolism was to blame.  Questioning Mal, he's told that he's better off leaving things alone, but Quirke, whose signature curiosity gets the better of him, tries to piece together Christine's story.  Officially he keeps quiet because he's not sure how it all links back to Mal, but Quirke just can't help delving into Christine's life, which may not have been such a smart idea.  He finds himself being followed; a woman who gives him a little insight into Christine Falls ends up dead, tied to a chair, yet he still doesn't get the message.  As he states:

"In his world, the world he inhabited up in the light, people did not have their fingernails broken or the soft undersides of their arms scorched with cigarettes; the people whom he knew were not bludgeoned to death in their own kitchens."

Quirke isn't naive, but what he doesn't realize just yet is that he's come up against a very powerful group of men who will do what they have to in order to keep Christine's story from being uncovered.  Quirke's search for the truth reveals a host of problems, from poverty to the interlocking of power held by the Catholic church and the wealthier members of the highest ranks of Dublin society, who are not-so-coincidentally respected and powerful members of the Church.  These are men whose long arms reach into every facet of the city's power structure, including the press,  and  will not have that perfect apple cart of a status quo upset by anyone.  

While not my favorite book in the series, the novel introduces its readers to Quirke, and to Dublin in the 1950s, and for the most part, I liked it.  The first half or so of the novel is just about perfect in terms of setting the tone and atmosphere as well as cluing the reader about the power scene,  but once the narrative moves to Boston it turns more to the side of personal melodrama that doesn't play so well and really sort of derails things before they come back around to what's going on in Dublin.   However, Christine Falls lays the groundwork for changes in Quirke's personal life; what happens in this book will become the basis for the rest of the series, so I definitely recommend it and reading it first before any of Black's other novels.  While the author does recap the basics in the other four novels, reading them is not the same without building from this one.

Henry Holt, 2008
290 pp.
hardcover ed.

With Quirke's life now in a bit more of a muddle after the revelations made in Christine Falls,  he is making more of an attempt to stay off the drink, but he always needs that one more -- but "of course, it would not be just the one."  But it's over tea that he meets with Billy Hunt, an old schoolmate he hasn't seen in years.  Billy's wife Deirdre was found in the waters of Sandycove Bay, seemingly a victim of suicide, and he asks Quirke to forego an autopsy, claiming that he can't stand thinking of her "sliced up," wanting to preserve his memories of her before she died.   By law, Quirke is required to do a postmortem, but agrees to see what he can do for Billy.  Back in the morgue he lifts the plastic sheet covering Deirdre, a hairdresser who also went by the professional name of Laura Swan, and while he's trying to picture what may have happened to her, he comes across a small puncture mark on the inner side of one of her arms.   While struggling over what course of action he should take now, his better judgment warns him to "stay on dry land," but
"he knew he would dive, headfirst, into the depths. Something in him yearned for the darkness there."

Conducting an unofficial autopsy anyway, Quirke realizes that this was no suicide and begins his own investigation.  Offered to readers from an omniscient, third-person pov that frequently switches, as Quirke sets to work trying to figure out exactly what's happened, and as his daughter Phoebe becomes caught up in her story in her own way,  Deirdre's story is revealed, little by little via flashbacks, interspersed with action in the present.  The Silver Swan reveals a nightmarish view from below, so to speak, in various forms of darkness that envelop seemingly ordinary people in the city.

There are some incredible characterizations here beyond the main players of this series: Dr. Kreutz, a "spiritual healer" who, along with Leslie White, slowly begin to erode Deirdre's sense of freedom; Billy Hunt, Deirdre's husband, and Deirdre herself, who wants to rise above her origins and make something of herself but who makes some very bad decisions.   But what really sucks you in is the whole nightmarish scene of what people are capable of -- and Deirdre's story takes you down into an abyss among some of the worst. 

Definitely recommended, but let me say something here.  Black's focus is not so much on plotting the perfect crime or following the success or failure of the police investigations in this book, or for that matter in any of his books -- it's largely on the characters who inhabit the streets of Dublin and the forces around them that lead them to act as they do.  If you would keep that in mind as you read, it will make the experience that much better. 

Henry Holt, 2010
293 pp
hardcover ed.

We start moving into deeper, blacker  territory here with Elegy for April, a trend that continues through the two novels following this one. This book also happens to be one of my favorites in the series.   

The book appropriately begins in the fog, which hangs over the story throughout -- and finds Quirke at the House of St. John of the Cross, a "refuge for addicts of all kinds, for shattered souls and petrifying livers," where he'd checked in after a six-month drinking binge  he could barely remember.   For Quirke, "stopping drinking had been easy; what was difficult was the daily, unblurred confrontation with a self he heartily wished to avoid."  During his daughter Phoebe's last visit before Quirke checks himself out, she tells him that one of her friends, young  Dr. April Latimer, has seemingly left without telling anyone and that she's concerned. None of their  group of mutual friends have heard from April in a week.  At first Quirke tells Phoebe that a week is not so long a time, but he does promise to make some calls.   Phoebe, however, remains concerned, especially when she and another friend go into April's flat and find what may be blood in the bathroom.  Not too long after Quirke releases himself from rehab, he, Phoebe and Hackett make their way to April's home, where they discover blood on the floorboards.  They decide to go and visit April's family, but they find themselves up against the epitome of Dublin's "fiercely-Catholic" powerful, the Latimers.  April's Uncle Bill is no less than the Minister of Health; her mother Celia a widow of a well-respected GPO war  hero, a powerful socialite, known for her good works and for having the ear of "many at the pinnacle of power in society;" April's brother is a powerful physician known to be "concerned with keeping condoms out and maternity hospitals full."  After they go to the family with their concerns, Quirke and Hackett both realize that the family is starting to distance themselves from April while simultaneously closing ranks.    That doesn't mean, however, that Quirke will stand down from his enquiries.

Elegy for April  is the best of the novels among the first three.  Not only is the central mystery intriguing, but the fog that begins in the first chapter immediately establishes a very real sense of the claustrophobia that pervades Dublin at the time, and also conjures a murkiness that lingers through the mystery of April's disappearance.   Throughout the story there are "lingering ghosts," that reflect not only the hold of the past, but the "poison of the past" as well, something Quirke knows very well. Racism is added to the ongoing list of the city's ills, Quirke may or may not have a found a girlfriend, and Phoebe is becoming more fully developed as a character.   And while the post-dénouement action might seem a bit contrived, it works in a clumsy sort of way.   All of that is really sort of secondary though, because in this novel, it's the  literary quality of the writing and the depth to which Black dives into character psyche  that stand out above everything else.   I was so taken by and wrapped up both areas that sometimes I forgot I was reading a crime novel.

  Definitely recommended -- and, as with all of the Quirke novels, they should be read in order to get the most out of them.

Henry Holt, 2011
308 pp
hardcover ed.

It was a drowsy day in summer, a perfect day for a death:

"When word got about that Richard Jewell had been found with the greater part of his head blown off and clutching a shotgun in his bloodless hands, few outside the family circle and few inside it, either, considered his demise a cause for sorrow."

Thus begins A Death in Summer, the fourth novel of this series.  As Richard "Diamond Dick" Jewell lays there in his own gore in his beautiful estate called Brooklands,  Quirke and Hackett, the two  "Connoisseurs of death," arrive on the scene.  Jewell runs the Daily Clarion, Dublin's top-selling newspaper, and while the death looks like a suicide the press isn't going to run it as such, since suicides were never reported in the newspapers.   Quirke, who had met Jewell some time earlier at a charity function,  doesn't believe it's a suicide anyway.  When talking to Françoise Jewell, Richard's widow, and his sister Denise (Dannie), he is stymied by their seeming lack of care and wonders "who are these two women really and what was going on here?"  That's but one question on his mind as he and Hackett begin their investigation.  They will once again mix in the Olympic realm of the moneyed classes who are very adept at hushing up any hint of scandal and quite skilled at keeping secrets, as the investigation takes Quirke back to Françoise (more than once)  and to Jewell's business rival, Carlton Sumner.  One of the leads will also  take Quirke to the orphanage where he spent a short amount of time before being taken to an industrial school;  although he's there to inquire after someone who may hold some information, he also wonders if he isn't there to "knead" some of his old wounds.   But what he learns may just be the key to unlocking the whole sordid business.

Aside from the portrait of the powerful in Dublin, Black also takes a look at the deep vein of anti-Semitism that flourishes there.  Jews are another group of people who find alienation in the city; many of them won't use their real names and opt for one that is less ethnic.  Even though the latest Lord Mayor, Briscoe, is Jewish, there are still a lot of people who are victims of prejudice; David Sinclair, Phoebe's new boyfriend, is one of them.   There are several subplots that eventually come together at the end, and there are enough diversions to keep any mystery reader well occupied. 

While Black continues to amaze me here with his imagery and his gift for language, and especially with his characters, this book just takes forever to get anywhere.  Normally I don't mind the slow pace in Black's novels, but this one sort of dragged in several spots.  When the action picks back up again, however, it turns that out the slow interludes can be forgiven because of the most evil and haunting nature of the crime, which ultimately has Hackett making the proverbial deal with the devil to gain any sort of justice:

"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."

highly recommended -- as are all the novels in this series.  They are simply superb. 

crime fiction from Ireland

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