Benjamin Black, the noir disguise of Booker Prize winner John Banville, has returned us to 1950s Dublin and to its genteel but menacing mean streets. Even The Dead is the eighth in the series of detective fictions which follows the life of the functioning alcoholic and pathologist Dr. Quirke. A peculiar family history and the established powers of the church and government burden Quirke. Of course, family and church and politics are in league; the revelations of that alliance challenge the doctor and in some cases imperil him through his many professional years.

Black/Banville has layered remarkable complexity in developing Quirke’s character over these eight books. It would be a long paragraph to summarize them here, but the complications are as much a part of recreation of an Ireland of sixty years ago as the murders and violence that Quirke and his ally Inspector Hackett confront.

Quirke is burdened by a past: he was raised in a brutal orphanage, “adopted” by a powerful judge, well educated in Ireland, and as a doctor in Boston. His melancholy and self-doubt ground his alcoholism, just as the death of his beloved wife leads to his profound sense of loss. Not quite a Byronic figure, but certainly a man who would appreciate the notion that he is an ironic approximation of one. Quirke’s every pleasure is won from guilt and every self-assertion a claim for respect from an authority that will mock him. His compassion is his hair shirt. It is to strong women that he turns to face himself in their eyes.

Yes, I am seduced by Quirke’s plight (and by virtually everything that Banville has ever written) but I would like to point out another appeal of these novels: their characterization, deft and “aslant.” This is Quirke’s observation of a nun who runs The Mother of Mercy Laundry (of the sort made infamous in the film The Maudlin Sisters):

“Sister Dominic again touched the pencil and the blotter, lightly, with the tips of her unquiet fingers. How they must torment her, those fingers, Quirke thought; she has spent her life shedding all signs of inner conflict and agitation, yet here, at the very extremities of her hands, she still betrayed herself.”

This is the one occasion we meet Sister Dominic, but her impact is acutely revealed. What she supports is a form of manipulation which compromises itself even as it shows its nervous dexterity.

Take this one other incident, the description of a house maid, Maise, once an inmate of the same laundry. She is being asked by her “betters” to return to the laundry to make discreet inquiries about a missing young woman.

“It was as if she was in a room with a glass ceiling, above her the others – Dr. Griffin and Mrs. Griffin, and Dr. Quirke . . .  - carried on their incomprehensible business, plain to be seen and yet shut off from her. There was a book she’d read once, in school or somewhere, that had pictures in it of Chinese people, or maybe they were Japanese, emperors and their wives and children, the men with wispy mustaches reaching nearly to the ground and the women with things that looked like knitting needles stuck in their hair. . . They wouldn’t have been much stranger, those Chinese or Japanese or whatever they were, than this crowd [who addressed her], talking in code and eyeing each other suspiciously all the time. God knows, she thought, what they’re up to now. All the same, she had better help them, or say that she’d try anyway. You’d never know what might be in it for her if she did, or what they might do to her if she didn’t.”

As an exploration of character (again one who appears perhaps three times in the work) this offers a clear sense of class difference, a glimpse at Maisie’s education, and her canny sense of power – its good and ill effects – and her need to respond.

Even The Dead offers these observations throughout and Black/Banville tells a very good, much involuted story. The pleasures of the narrative, the parade of eccentric characters, and the human dilemmas the plot exposes give us fiction of a high order. Banville’s writing tells, and it’s a great pleasure to listen.


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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