Thursday 26 April 2018

Books: Shadowy world of Dublin's corrupt elite

Thriller: Even the Dead, Benjamin Black, Penguin Viking, pbk, 356 pages, €16.99

Back to black: Gabriel Byrne in the TV adaptation of Quirke
Back to black: Gabriel Byrne in the TV adaptation of Quirke
Even the Dead by Benjamin Black

Myles McWeeney

Our reviewer on the joy of the seventh instalment in the Quirke series by John Banville's 'dark' alter ego.

Booker Prize-winning author John Banville remembers vividly the moment that Benjamin Black, the part of him he refers to as his "dark and twin brother," came into being. In early 2004 he was driving along the Clontarf Road on a blustery spring afternoon, a day so wild that, in a typically Banville literary flourish, he said the rooks in the trees in St Anne's Park were "tossed about the air like scraps of charred paper".

He was mulling over a suggestion from his agent, Ed Victor, that he should try his hand at a crime novel when, just as he was passing an area called Black Banks, he recalled a TV miniseries he had been commissioned to write in the early 2000s. It was to have been set in mid-1950s Dublin and America but it was now clear it was never going to be made.

In a blinding flash he realised he had an existing plot, ready-made characters, plenty of dialogue and thus Benjamin Black was born. He took himself and his new alter ego to an ancient tower in Tuscany with jotters and a pen. In 2006, less than 12 months after his literary novel The Sea - a rank 7/1 outsider in the bookies eyes - had been awarded the £50,000 Booker Prize, Christine Falls, the first of the now seven-strong series of crime novels featuring the gruff and unsociable pathologist Dr Quirke was published. Benjamin Black has been a godsend to Banville.

His literary novels like The Sea, The Book of Evidence and Mefisto, which are painstakingly crafted a couple of hundred words a day over years of writing and rewriting, while brilliantly reviewed, might sell as little as 5,000 copies each. The effort of attempting to produce enduring art does not make Banville the easiest person to live with. His wife, he has said, once likened his demeanour at such times to that of "a murderer who's just come back from a particularly bloody killing". As far as he is concerned, all his literary novels have been failures. They are never good enough, and he says he never reads reviews as he already knows their shortcomings.

Benjamin Black, on the other hand, can sit down and write fluent and acutely observed crime stories at the rate of 1,500 words day after day. They make him serious money, a boon for a man who describes himself as a freelance, with all the financial insecurity that profession implies.

Mr Black also secured him a further hefty financial windfall when the atmospheric TV series, featuring renowned Irish actors Gabriel Byrne as Quirke and Michael Gambon as Garda Inspector Hackett, was aired on the BBC and RTÉ last summer.

The recent news that John Banville/Benjamin Black is teaming up with former U2 manager Paul McGuinness and film-maker Neil Jordan to make a glossy crime drama TV series called Riviera should further secure Banville's bank balance.

While the plot of Riviera, centring on a powerful business family concealing their criminal dealings whilst living in the glamorous south of France was dreamed up by McGuinness, the signing of Banville as co-writer was a shrewd move, and the involvement of Jordan a masterstroke. Oscar-winning Jordan, with the hit 2011 to 2013 TV series The Borgias under his belt, has serious film and TV credibility.

John Banville was born in Wexford in 1945, the youngest son in a family of three. He couldn't wait to leave home, bolting for the bright city lights immediately after school to become a clerk ("grimly boring") in Aer Lingus, mostly for the travel opportunities the job offered; he recalls flying first class to San Francisco for just £2. He lived in America for two years in 1968 and 1969. Later he became a sub-editor in the Irish Press. By working at night, he was able to spend his days honing his skills as a writer, determined to create great art. In 1995 he joined the Irish Times, where, in 1998, he became Literary Editor but left in 1999.

Even the Dead, the latest Benjamin Black Quirke mystery sees the misanthropic alcoholic physician recuperating from a mysterious brain malady at his adoptive brother Mal Griffin's home in Ailesbury Road.

He is visited by his deputy, David Sinclair, who is going out with Quirke's daughter, Phoebe. A young man has been burned to death when his car struck a tree in the Phoenix Park, but Sinclair thinks the accident may have been staged. Quirke examines the charred remains and agrees with Sinclair's assessment.

The young man is Leon Corless, a high-flying young civil servant, son of a rampant socialist bus driver. Quirke's suspicions are raised when Leon's superiors are cagey about what he was working on.

Added to that, the only witness to the accident has vanished, every trace of her wiped away.

Once again Quirke and his friend and confidante, Inspector Hackett, are plunged into the shadowy world of the 1950s Dublin elite, the secret societies, the church, the politicians, the sleek and corrupt movers and shakers who have money to lose, all of whom collude to ensure the status quo is preserved and Irish society and citizens are cowed so everything runs smoothly in their personal interest.

For anyone who grew up in 1950s Dublin, Banville/Black's masterly evocation of the city, with its smoke-shrouded and boozy pubs, the decrepit, uncared-for buildings, the unruly traffic and the often depressed mien of the average Dubliner, is scarily accurate.

With its flowing prose, penetrating observation and deft evocation of time and place, Even the Dead is an unalloyed pleasure from start to finish.

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