April in Spain John Banville Faber, €16.99
There is no clear distinction to be made between John Banville’s crime novels and his other fiction. There is the same elegant pacing, crafted prose and detailed examination of relationships – personal, social and political – that won him the Booker Prize. As Benjamin Black or under his own name, crime as a genre suits Banville.
In April in Spain, the heavy-drinking, Irish state pathologist Quirke, familiar from the Benjamin Black novels, returns. We meet him on holidays with Evelyn, his Austrian psychiatrist wife, in Donostia in the Basque country.
Jewish Evelyn, having escaped the inevitable in World War II, tracked through Europe, eventually settling in Dublin where she has achieved surprising career success given the era. She has revealed little of her past and throughout their stay in Donostia, Quirke is constantly amazed as details of Evelyn’s history are incidentally drip-fed.
Theirs is a loving and intellectually equal relationship with Quirke gently probing the mysteries of his wife’s story and Evelyn amused and tolerant of Quirke’s quirks. Their conversations are like tennis matches with Evelyn always, to Quirke’s mind, having the last word. “And in that way the rally petered to a close, with a score of love-all.”
Running alongside the goings- on in Donostia is the parallel story of Terry Tice, an Irish-born London dweller who kills to order, loves his gun and flees back to Ireland after he kills his spiv patron Percy, a “fat old poofter” who was, pre-murder, granted minor sexual privileges by Tice.
The central plot unfolds among the visceral descriptions of Basque cuisine, language, weather and architecture when Quirke recognises a young Irish woman he overhears in a bar and tries to establish how he knows her.
When Quirke accidentally cuts himself while trying to open oysters with a pair of scissors, a visit to the hospital lands him in the off-handish care of an Irish doctor – the woman from the bar.
Quirke becomes increasingly convinced that Dr Angela Lawless is, in fact, April Latimer, a friend of Quirke’s own daughter Phoebe. April, a member of an Irish political dynasty, disappeared, presumed dead at the hand of her brother who admitted her murder before apparently killing himself.
Tice, meanwhile, ambles around Dublin, far from the abusive orphanage of his childhood, reading Brighton Rock, in search of a useful place for his criminal skills. Tension builds as we come to understand that the stories of Tice and April Latimer will inevitably clash.
The book is not a mile-a-minute crime thriller. Banville calls the reader to take time, to savour the intricate descriptions of people and place. Whether it is the hat shop assistant’s “long, tapering honey-coloured hands” and “night-black hair” or a man’s posture “inclined to the leeward side of Cape Perineum”, Banville slowly steeps the reader in his prose.
And he is not content with considering only the microcosm of Donostia and its mysteries. The churn of the political and social world of post-independence and post-emergency Ireland – the grip of church and certain political parties – is a constant backdrop treated with all the intelligence and nuance that we’ve come to expect from Banville.
This is a slow-burning mystery, a love story and a study of the corruption and power of the Irish political elite – quite a lot to pack into one crime novel. Banville has achieved it with grace and poise.