Irish literary figure and Booker Prize winner John Banville adopts a pen name to begin a mystery series centered on Dublin pathologist Quirke. (I finished the novel unsure whether that is first name or last, nor of what is the other to go with it. Could be my lack of retention, or could be author’s intent to create one more bit of mystery which he can choose to reveal for greater impact at some later date, ala Inspector ‘Morse’).
Black or Banville, there is still an impressive attention to framing detail; sometimes to excess. Inventive descriptions as well, though some are less apt if you stop to picture what the words actually mean, rather than just listening to their melody in quick reading. His characters too, are interesting enough in the moment, but not a little typecast if examined at all closely. Still, their motivations are considered and valid, their conflicts and difficult choices are well-applied to drive dialogue if not plot, and all of it is much more real than, say, a Hammett, a King or a Fleming would do.
This is 1950’s Ireland too, and perhaps those stereotypes were more pervasive and real in that time and place. Surely Banville knows much better than I, so we roll with it. What begins rather slowly builds a fair degree of tension and becomes, by the second half, a stay-up-late-to-finish-it experience, with little of the hangover that comes from having been manipulated or toyed with. There’s also very little resort to gore, gunplay or car chases, though plenty of bar scenes, cigarette fondling and coffee/tea/wine drinking to give the impression of far more action than really occurs. Like most mysteries, it’s really all about distressed and disaffected people talking – and not talking – to one another about events which happened in the past or offscreen.
All in all, a very credible diversion, even if Quirke is not yet someone I’d really like to spend time with. Worth a go at the second in the series though, to see where it all is headed, as this author is far too skilled to settle for just piling up the bodies and counting coup of capital crimes solved.