Sunday 24 September 2017

The Quirke in Banville's genius

John Banville's alter ego, Benjamin Black, is a brilliant thriller writer, says Gerry Dukes

Pathologist Quirke will be played by Gabriel Byrne in the upcoming BBC series - (C) BBC - Photographer: Steffan Hill
Pathologist Quirke will be played by Gabriel Byrne in the upcoming BBC series - (C) BBC - Photographer: Steffan Hill
John Banville as his alter ego Benjamin Black

Gerry Dukes

This is the sixth Quirke thriller that Black/Banville has produced since the series opened in September 2006 with Christine Falls. The series was interrupted/augmented by Black's The Lemur in 2008, by Banville's amazing The Infinities in 2009 and the gorgeous Ancient Light last year. It is evident that Banville's assumption of a different writing persona has been creatively a smart move, allowing him access to an enhanced productivity in novels that operate at a lower pressure, so to speak, than those he produces under his own name.

Banville has spoken on a number of occasions about the coming into existence of Benjamin Black, his "dark twin"; he has even identified the setting for that strange "birth". The birth reportedly happened as Banville was driving from Howth into Dublin and was so disturbing that he was forced to pull over as he drove by St Anne's Park.

What Banville has left out of his account is the proximity of the wooden bridge from Dollymount to Bull Island to this stretch of road. And Banville (being the extraordinary writer that he is) is doubtless aware that this bridge is a sacred site in the mythology of Irish writing.

For it is across this bridge that Stephen Dedalus walks in the fourth chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as he moves towards his complex rebirth as an artist. There, on Bull Island (what an appropriate place for a mythological encounter – Joyce never misses a trick), Stephen will meet the girl wading in a tidal pool and he will recognise her as "an angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life" who invites him "to all the ways of error and glory".

It took Joyce and Stephen more than another three years before their courage was screwed to the sticking place and they could set out "to forge in the smithy of (their souls) the uncreated conscience of (their) race". Banville is fully aware of the possibilities that inhere in the verb "to forge".

When we sit down to write, who and what we are, what we can become, resides in the words that we string together in the hope of some sort of communication. So far, when Banville writes of murder and mayhem, he becomes Black.

This is in no way to disparage Black's books. The Quirke thrillers deliver disturbing images of life in Ireland in the mid- to late-1950s of the last century. The obnoxious collusions between church and State, the golden circles of power and influence at their nefarious backstairs work, the sycophants, hypocrites, bishops and bounders are all pitilessly exposed to the reader's gaze.

In this new book, the solving of a particularly brutal murder case goes unreported because the archbishop does not want any unsavoury details to come to public knowledge. His holy order to a newspaper proprietor is accompanied by the suggestion that severe economic damage may occur if any disclosure takes place. The archbishop's wish is treated as a command, as was usual.

Of course, the term holy orders encompasses more than a bishop's injunction. We have learnt, with depressing frequency in recent years, that those in holy orders, among others, can be a disorderly crew. At the centre of this book there is such a one. Fr Mick Honan is a suave operator with his fingers in many pies and with many children in his abusive clutches. He is a predator who moves through society as a do-gooder – a wolf in a dog collar.

An alert young reporter from the Daily Clarion has picked up some hints, makes an informed guess and writes to the priest seeking an interview. The book opens with the reporter's badly beaten corpse being taken from the Grand Canal near Huband Bridge.

The corpse is brought to Quirke's pathology theatre for the requisite post-mortem. Quirke recognises the remains as those of a friend of his daughter, Phebe.

There is no way that this reviewer will shatter the discretion appropriate when dealing with the plot outcomes of a thriller.

Suffice it to say that there is a second murder worthy of Martin McDonagh at his tricksy best. The bad end messily and the guilty remain unpunished. That's how it was in the "devil era" (Joyce's phrase) when the roost was ruled by the "dragon men" (Thomas Kinsella's).

This time, Quirke is still heavily smoking and drinking too much. But his befuddlement seems to arise from less quantifiable sources. His ongoing relationship with an actress is becoming tepid, his usual acuity seems blunted, he is more haunted than he has been so far.

Black has provided an arc of development for Quirke that will surely be grist to Gabriel Byrne's creative mill as he assumes the part in the forthcoming TV series.

Gerry Dukes is a writer and critic

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment