John Banville is a prize-winning writer of literary fiction, who has explored the Irish ‘Great House’ novel, with its leaning towards Gothic, including family secrets such as incest and illegitimacy. His crime series efficiently exploits the conventions of the amateur sleuth and his detective contact. His setting is a grim, smelly, hypocritical Dublin prior to the Boston Globe’s revelations of widespread child abuse by priests, or the investigations of long-term incarceration of unfortunate pregnant single women in Catholic-run laundries, and the immediate theft of the newborns to be placed in deserving Catholic families (often in America). Quirke, his pathologist amateur sleuth, is, of course, an alcoholic (but not a jazz fan) who gave up his own newborn baby to his step-brother and sister-in-law when his wife died. Their father’s sexual corruption hangs over them all from the first book; it has long been clear where the (also-adopted) Quirke comes in the saga of predation on the weak, including servants. In this book the cliché count is high: a Trotskyite socialist who fought in Spain; his reactionary son; the continued power of Costigan, who escaped justice some books ago; the unexplained change in the delineation of Quirke’s Jewish assistant at the hospital; and the possibility of happiness with another, unrelated, Jewish character who happens to be a talking-cure psychiatrist. Is series fatigue the explanation of the repetitions and Quirke’s strangely newly-realised understanding of his place in the story? There is some fast foot-work about the difference between knowing and knowing (perhaps something to do with the analyst?) which is a structural flaw.
One expects above-average stylish writing from such an author, but this book is full of lazy repetitions. For example, there are numerous nature descriptions, particularly of the sky, throughout the book. ‘Blue’ returns regularly as part of a lowering sky effect, I found six, some mixed with grey, both much scattered around elsewhere, including a penchant in Dublin for men’s suits. It felt like a hard-boiled novel of the period trying to be artsy. None of these descriptions is as good as Lee Child’s dawn at the start of chapter 52 in his latest book, Make Me. Given the accent on the filthiness of Dublin, with its city-centre dirty industries (in the literal sense: sawmills, Guinness brewery, the grotesquely polluted Liffey), there’s little need for the symbolism of Quirke’s moods or the general corruption, mostly Catholic male. There is a harpy nun running the laundry, about whom the narrator indulges in sarcastic indirect free style. How lucky for Banville that he got Gabriel Byrne to play his pathologist, an actor who transforms a crude fiction into something more real than reality, when Lee Child only got Tom Cruise.
Benjamin Black (John Banville)
Even the Dead (Quirke 7)
Penguin (28 January 2016) 272pp.