Saturday 16 November 2019

Books: Quirke is now centre of mystery

Even the Dead, Benjamin Black, Viking €14.99

Past catching up: Gabriel Byrne as Benjamin Blake's pathologist Quirke, sees his sketchy family tree in spotlight
Past catching up: Gabriel Byrne as Benjamin Blake's pathologist Quirke, sees his sketchy family tree in spotlight

James Lawless

Although writing as Benjamin Black, the beautiful Banville prose images still abound in this, the seventh novel in the Quirke series. Attending the city hospital to examine a body found in a burnt-out car, the pathologist treads the familiar "toffee-brown rubber floor tiles that squealed underfoot," while Dublin experiences a June heat wave with its "sunlight outside, heavy as honey".

John Banville claims that in his writing he tries, like Virginia Woolf, "to blend poetry and fiction into some new form." There are traces of that attempt even in this book, placing it above a mere 'whodunnit', when Quirke, by moonlight, observes swans in the canal "pale enough to be their own ghosts". Banville would have made a fine poet.

We discover mental aberrations during some of Quirke's conversations which suggest he may be suffering from brain injury as a result of a beating he received during a previous investigation. Also Quirke's existential angst in "the seemingly aimless project that was his life" could be partly attributed to his having no mother to take care of him when he was growing up and a father he never knew. The dead seem to overpower him at times and, fittingly, half way through the book we reach its kernel where we learn that this is not so much a detective mystery but rather a mystery about Quirke himself. "What drove him he believed was the absence of a past . . . He didn't know who he was, where he came from . . . and so he was here on the trail of another lost creature".

Quirke has to determine with his sidekick, Detective Inspector Hackett, whether the dead man, Leon Corless, an up-and-coming civil servant, committed suicide or was murdered. A distraught girl called Lisa contacts Quirke's daughter Phoebe for help and then mysteriously disappears. So far so good, but the story is slowed by these same conundrums and forensic findings being repeated verbatim and ad nauseam to nearly every character in the book. One feels a summary would have sufficed after their first iteration.

However, the narrative does pick up and becomes gripping as, with the aid of the pathologist and inspector, we try to fit the missing pieces of the jigsaw together. It reaches a riveting high point with the corrupt politician Costigan revealing he knows who Quirke's father was.

The weakest character is Doctor Evelyn Blake, consultant psychiatrist who does not for this reader ring true. The dialogue between herself and Quirke is stilted or downright farcical with the reference to her "wonderful big bottom," reminiscent of Father Ted. How could a world-weary Quirke fall in love with her so quickly after just one night in her company while, conveniently at the same time, his daughter Phoebe falls in love with her nephew? It's a rushed package for an unsatisfying wrapping up. At times one feels Quirke is overstretching himself in his role as pathologist, and it is Hackett who should be investigating, for example, when withdrawing the newly-discovered 'Lisa' from the Mother of Mercy laundry. The inspector would have had more authority here than Quirke, but then it is not his story.

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