Benjamin Black, the noir-ish pen name of Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville, writes about a shadowy world of existential dread where searching for the truth behind a particular crime competes with the dark mysteries in the souls of his troubled characters. Fittingly, Black’s detective is actually a Dublin pathologist, Garret Quirke, who seems to view investigating crime as akin to turning over rocks only to find the insects beneath scattering in the light.
Weighed down by his own demons, Quirke seems almost relieved to turn his focus to the problems of others. Quirke, writes Black in a moment of typical understatement, “was not lavish with his emotions.” Like so many great detectives, Quirke is a confirmed loner who refuses to reach out to others because he is afraid that they will disappoint him or try to manipulate him. “What everyone told him was true,” writes Black, “[Quirke] was too much among the dead. But who was going to venture down into the underworld and fetch him up into the light?”
In this, Black’s fifth Quirke novel, the setting is Ireland in the 1950s. We’re brought inside the two-family firm of Victor Delahaye and Jack Clancy, whose fathers started the business. One day Delahaye takes his partner’s son Davy for a sail, tells him a cryptic story from his childhood, and then shoots himself. Detective Inspector Hackett becomes suspicious because the motive for the wealthy Delahaye’s suicide seems unclear. Enter Quirke. The good doctor follows the clues where they lead — deep into the dark hearts of both families, clans for whom rivalry, infidelity, secrecy, and backstabbing are parlor games.
Throughout, Black’s prose is vividly rendered, almost painterly in its detail. As Quirke walks through Dublin, for instance, Black describes how the “sun was still shining but the evening shadows were lengthening; twilight was gathering itself deep in the foliage of the beeches set at intervals along the pavement.” Black also memorably describes the dying elder of the Clancy family, Philip Clancy, as inhabiting his shadowy lair “with the indolent furtiveness of an elongated, big-eyed, emaciated carp.” And while the Delahayes and Clancys certainly have much to hide, Quirke turns out to be an expert at looking into the hidden, murky places of the human soul.
Black’s book is long on detection and introspection but short on action. The legendary mystery writer Raymond Chandler, creator of detective Philip Marlowe, once said that when he got stuck while writing, he would simply “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” to rekindle the action. This is not Black’s style. His “action” takes place inside the characters, especially Quirke, as they struggle to understand the roots of murder. Those mystery readers looking for shoot-outs or car chases will want to go elsewhere. Readers with a literary bent who prefer stylish prose and fully-realized characters are in the right hands with Black.
Of course, Quirke uncovers the surprising truth in the end, but it offers him little comfort.
On the final page, Quirke makes an attempt to reach out for human contact, deciding to call a potential romantic interest in Dublin. Once inside the phone booth, he discovers he has no change. Thwarted, he is left with a sense of frustrated resignation: “The rain beat against the small glass panes all around him. He hung up the phone and blundered out into the storm.”