This noir mystery is set in 1950’s Dublin at a time when the Catholic Church played a large role in the social fabric, particularly with respect to options for women. There is a small cast of central characters dominated by the two sons of an eminent judge, Garrett Griffin. The judge favored the orphan he raised, Quirke, more than his actual son, Malachy, creating a competitive love/hate relationship between the brothers.
The two boys went to Boston for medical school before returning to Dublin to start careers. While abroad, they fell in love with two sisters, Sarah and Delia, daughters of a wealthy entrepreneur with old connections to Judge Griffin. Mal married Sarah, and Quirke married Delia, who died in childbirth soon after marriage. There are hints that Quirke and Sarah have always been in love with one another rather than their respective spouses.
Although Quirke is a pathologist and Mal is an obstetrician, as the story opens we find Mal in Quirke’s office altering the death certificate of Christine Falls, a young woman now in the morgue. Quirke, pretty much always drunk, becomes curious and sets out to discover who this woman was and why Mal was changing her file.
As the mystery unfolds, we learn just how complex are the relationships among the members of this troubled family. We also get a sense of the corruption then spreading its tentacles through the Catholic Church, and into the lives of its congregants.
Discussion: Benjamin Black is a pseudonym for Irish author John Banville, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea. I felt that had it not been for the fact that the author was actually Banville, this mystery series might not have garnered as much notice.
In this first novel of the Quirke series (possibly Black improves as the series goes along), the author isn’t always adept at constructing his “red herrings.” When we find out something has been twisted and we look back, the deception isn’t quite as seamless as it should be. In fact, the biggest twist doesn’t hang together at all.
Also, a large part of the plot concerns the bad things that used to happen in Ireland to women who had babies out of wedlock. I think female authors would have been all over that plotline, but for Black, it’s just something to provide twists and move the story along about Quirke and Mal.
There are some passages that seem to be artistic to the point of obfuscation. At other times, though, the author’s literary bent does add to the atmosphere, but it is one so bleak and replete with damaged people (whether evil, bitter, drunken, empty inside, hypocritical, and/or psychologically unbalanced) that it’s hard to warm up to the story and its protagonists. Quirke is the most likable character, but that isn’t saying much; he himself owns up to his indifference and selfishness. He washes away the emptiness of his life with glass after glass of whiskey, without even any musings beforehand about what it is he wants so badly to erase. We, the readers, are not only left in the dark, but without much reason to feel sympathy for him.
Evaluation: This sordid, bleak tale is heavier on atmosphere than on taut plot-limning, drenched in the dolefulness of alcoholism; the abuse of Catholic hegemony; and the unhappy lives of hopeless people, who are impoverished in terms of money or character or both. The book won a nomination from the Mystery Writers of America for the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Novel, but I can’t see why, except that the author is really John Banville.
Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2006