Saturday 24 March 2018

Review: Elegy for April by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

Mantle, €20.73

This is the third "Quirke Dublin mystery" from Benjamin Black, aka John Banville. Both Black and Banville are equally serious and stylish, blackly or bleakly comic and wonderfully sly but the works are addressed to different audiences.

Quirke is a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking pathologist working at a Dublin hospital in the 1950s. We have yet to learn his first name but we do know it is inherently comic and Quirke is at pains to conceal it. Just as he is concerned to keep quiet about his murky past -- orphanage and fosterage -- and his messy present. So far, so stereotypical. We do not expect our "mystery" heroes to be either clean-cut or heroic.

In his earlier outings -- Christine Falls (2006) and The Silver Swan (2007) -- Quirke's post-mortem findings propel him into investigations that uncover all sorts of unseemly aspects of Irish life, public and private.

He discovers that Ireland is not a sunny, unfallen place where happy (or even comely) maidens cavort at crossroads but a bear-pit where church and state and "business" operate hand in glove and that the gloves merely sheathe mailed fists. In Quirke's Ireland (as in our own) the hypocrites and whited sepulchres come in many shapes, from judges to politicians, journalists to therapists.

This time, a young woman named April Latimer, a friend of Quirke's daughter, has gone missing and none of her friends has any clue as to why or where she has gone.

April comes from a highly respected family. She is a junior doctor and her brother is a leading gynaecologist. Their father was a revolutionary patriot and their uncle is currently the Minister for Health.

But April has a reputation for being a bit fast and wild though the wildness is very much closer to home than it should be. The Latimer family is averse to scandal, and will not tolerate reputational damage.

Quirke, having just discharged himself from a drying-out facility (here called St John of the Cross -- no doubt because the therapy is a slow crucifixion), is inveigled into the search for April. In short order he will embark on an affair with an actress from the Gate -- the "boys" from that theatre will make two cameo appearances in the book, one at the Russell and the other at Jammet's -- and he will repeatedly fall off the wagon.

Wild horses could not drag from your reviewer how the mystery is resolved but Howth summit and a rare Alvis car are centrally involved.

Really sharp-eyed readers will notice that the dust jacket features an atmospheric photograph by Life magazine's Tony Linck of Bachelor's Walk, looking westward on a bright but foggy day in winter. There is, amongst other vehicles, a "sit up and beg" Ford Prefect in the foreground with a sleek Alvis alongside and some pedestrians on the pavement. In all kinds of absorbing ways, Elegy for April is a set of variations on that captivating photograph.

Gerry Dukes is a writer and critic

Irish Independent

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