Benjamin Black

The prize-winning Irish novelist, John Banville, leads a double authorial life writing detective mysteries under the penname, Benjamin Black. I have a friend who refuses to read Banville’s Dr. Quirke detective stories because he, my friend, ruined a summer holiday by starting an early novel in the series. Quirke’s character simply depressed him too much to finish the book, and by extension, he spoiled his vacation. I must admit that Quirke as a pathologist and canny Watson to a dour Holmesean DI Hackett affects me in the opposite manner. Banville creates, with an admittedly dismal joy, a neurotic near-alcoholic sorting out the dingier crimes of Dublin in the nineteen fifties. With a nod to that other Dubliner, James Joyce, Banville offers an array of characters that populate an equally broad array of watering holes. And the patter of the speakers might mix happily with that of those who accompany the journeys of Leopold Bloom. We know of the childhood darkness that feeds the melancholy root of Dr. Quirke’s soul: his abusive upbringing at Carricklea, a Christian Brothers’ orphanage, and his subsequent adoption by Judge Garret Griffin who with his natural children simply complicate the primal scene of Quirke’s upbringing.  Quirke suffers yet another blow, the loss of his wife, and then the aching burden of discovering his daughter, who had believed she was the child of Quirke’s step brother. No wonder the man has hands shaped to fit a glass that holds the spirits that will lift his own – or not.

The latest novel in the series, Holy Orders, offers us an apparently inexplicable murder, a Gypsy “tinker” encampment, threats to Quirke’s daughter, an avenging sibling, and a pedophile priest. Yet the real heart of the work is Banville’s development of Quirke.

His mental disintegration, precipitated in part by the echoes of his childhood that he finds in the crime he helps to solve, is recorded in striking prose. Here is Quirke after a deeply unsettling hallucination:

What he felt was that there was a light somewhere, jittery yet constant, shining urgently at him, which, however, he could not see and, he suspected, never would see. He knew what it was like, he could even describe it, were he to be called upon to do so: a circular white beam, intense yet somewhat diffused around the edges, and flickering, as if some component of the general apparatus, a taut, vertical wire, perhaps, were passing rapidly back and forth in front of it. It was off to his right, positioned in the middle distance, mounted, he thought, on a tripod or a tall slender pillar, or possibly a pole, but a rickety affair of some kind anyway. Yet how could he know these things, how could he have even a general idea of them? For no matter how hard he tried to see it, whipping his eyes to the right suddenly to catch it off guard, as it were, the light always eluded him, always shifted on the instant, just beyond the margin of his vision. He was, he thought, like a dog chasing its own tail.

The rhythm of the prose, the heavily subordinated phrases, the qualifications, and the lanky syntax make the mimetic point: Banville has us watch the way Quirke’s mind works. The constellation of images, heavily infected with mechanical threats and damaging visions, catches the paranoia of a man physically sick and mentally unbalanced. The genre character moves beyond the genre: Quirke draws interest; a reader cares about him, and, yes, we want to know the results of his x-ray scan, for Holy Orders leaves us with this cliff-hanger as a suitable Quirkean tease.

Banville provides entertainment of the highest order, albeit deeply threatening in the spiritual sense. Quirke is a man up against the worst aspects of his nature and nurture, yet courageous enough to find his own way to truth, about the crimes of others and about himself. Only in the evocation of the pedophile Father Honan does the novel seem to fall short: the priest’s easy acceptance of his crimes and his fatuous dependency on the words of contrition, surely ironic, convey not monstrous acts but, to risk the phrase, the banality of evil. Yet I ask myself if that is not Banville’s point: the blunted moral sense of the predator, the tortured self-loathing of the victim, Quirke. Father Honan, in what can be seen as a form of exculpation says to Quirke: “What Kind of self-respecting God would concern himself with the poor likes of us?” The profound import of the novel is to suggest just what sort of God does.


Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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