Monday 27 March 2023

Guest review by Anne Cassidy: THE QUIRKE MYSTERIES by Benjamin Black (John Banville)


"I like to spend time in Quirke’s company ... I feel myself drawn along alongside him and his journeys through the mean streets of Dublin."

Anne Cassidy writes crime fiction for teenagers. She has published over forty novels for young adults. She writes dark crime fiction and is best known for Looking for JJ which was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. Moth Girls was published by Hot Key in 2016 and concerns the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. Her latest novel No Virgin describes the aftermath of a rape.

John Banville’s detective novels, written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, are set in Dublin in the 1950s. The first paperback was published in 2006. I discovered them all a couple of years ago and recently have reread the first three, Christine Falls, The Silver Swan and Elegy for April. I often reread. Getting the mystery out of the way I can luxuriate in the setting, the characters and the masterful plotting.

The main character, Quirke, is a lonely man and in the best traditions of detective fiction he has a scarred past. His day job is all about the dead. He is a pathologist and spends his time cutting up cadavers in search of a cause of death. His findings are pathological; the body tells him how it has died. What it doesn’t tell him is why the life has ended or who brought this demise about. He is largely satisfied with this except when there is a personal connection. A girl, Christine Falls, has had her death mis-recorded at the hands of Quirke’s brother-in-law. Quirke senses a cover-up and cannot leave the matter alone. In The Silver Swan an old student acquaintance, the husband of a dead woman, asks Quirke not to carry out a post-mortem on her because he can’t bear the thought of her being cut up. Alarm bells ring for Quirke. In Elegy for April, a friend of his daughter’s goes missing, presumed dead. Here, there is no body at all for Quirke to examine but instead he probes into her life.

He is drawn into these murders and each one troubles his already fragile hold on the world. In Quirke’s heart there is a kind of raging for his past. He has experienced the deprivations and cruelty of an orphanage while at the same time, in Dickensian fashion, being plucked out of it by a rich, powerful man and given a privileged upbringing. This new life gives him a foot in the very camp that he tries to expose and punish. Each of the cases pulls him into the deeper levels of religious corruption in 1950s class-ridden Dublin.

He has a sidekick of sorts. Chief Inspector Hackett is everything that Quirke is not. He is a man comfortable in his cheap suit and hat and happy in his life and job. His wife gives him a flask and biscuits on a cold overnight vigil (although they are Rich Tea, not his favourite). His exchanges with Quirke are humorous and at times philosophical and although Quirke is snobbish in his regard for him, the reader can see that Hackett is sharp and quick and sees through Quirke’s maudlin investigations.

Quirke’s relationships with women are always tentative not least with the daughter he gave away as a baby. His cavalier attitude towards his first love means that he struggles to find anything that would live up to it. There is not much comfort for him in women (much less so for the women themselves).

I like to spend time in Quirke’s company. He is described as a ‘big’ man, too large for this small city and its tight rules and conventions. I enjoy his striving to put things right often from the bottom of a glass (did I mention problems with alcohol?) I feel myself drawn along alongside him and his journeys through the mean streets of Dublin.

The Quirke Mysteries are published by Picador.

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