The name's Black, Benjamin Black
CRIME FICTION: DAVID PARKreviews Elegy for AprilBy Benjamin Black, Mantle, 313pp, £16.99
ELEGY FOR APRIL, written under the pen name of Benjamin Black, is John Banville’s latest foray into the world of crime fiction, and again it features Dublin pathologist Dr Quirke as the uncompromising sleuth. Set in 1950s Dublin, it opens in a vivid and ghostly echo of Bleak House, with the city shrouded in a “muffled silence” of fog where it “seemed bewildered, like a man whose sight has suddenly failed”. The imagery of fog, mist and inclement weather is skilfully sustained throughout the story, an acutely apposite metaphor for a society held tightly in the grip of reactionary individuals and cabals, where inconvenient truths are hidden behind self-serving and self-preserving facades of respectability.
Quirke, the pursuer of truth, as seems de rigueur for the genre, is deeply flawed; we first meet him drying out in an institution after a six-month drinking binge. Quirke’s battle with alcohol both humanises him and provides some of the most poignantly powerful moments of the novel, as he struggles with “the daily unblurred confrontation with a self he heartily wished to avoid”. After a later lapse with whiskey we are told that “the feeling of it spreading through his chest made him think of a small, many-branched tree bursting slowly into hot, bright flames”. As part of his cure in St John’s – although he considers it part of his penance – he has to expose his failures to a “designated fellow-sufferer”. In Quirke’s case it is Harkness, a Christian Brother and in part a representative of the repressed institutionalised world where Quirke spent his maimed childhood. In a novel that is ultimately about the difficult and painful fight for truth when faced with the relentless resistance of individual and societal power, Harkness is only able to “release reluctant resistant nuggets of information, as if he were spitting out the seeds of a sour fruit”.
It is in St John’s that Quirke is visited by his daughter, Phoebe, who still manages to love him despite having been given away after the death of her mother and confides in him her concerns about a missing friend, April Latimer, a young doctor. April is the estranged daughter of the powerful Latimer family, who are represented in government and enjoy close relationships with the Church. As the story unravels through increasingly intriguing and murky pathways, Quirke discovers that the Latimer family will do their best to frustrate his search for their missing daughter and are ruthlessly willing to employ “the velvet word, the silken threat” in order to control events.
The novel is brimming with memorable characters, not least Quirke’s ally, Inspector Hackett – a conscious or unconscious echo of Dickens’s Inspector Bucket, perhaps? However, Hackett’s unsophisticated and amiable exterior is suspected by Quirke to be a convenient disguise, as he also observes his “thin-lipped mouth like a steel trap”. Despite his rank Hackett is not averse to doing his own leg work and takes an old school pride in pounding the icy night streets, equipped only with a flask of tea and “a handful of biscuits in a brown-paper bag” as he attempts to capture Phoebe’s mysterious night watcher. And like Dickens, Black/Banville has the ability to convey character through intensely imaginative and vivid physical description that succinctly encapsulates character. For example, Isabel Galloway, an actress and Quirke’s love interest, has “vivid lips, sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”.
Although the author occasionally has a little fun with his choice of some characters’ names, it is obvious that he has a deeply serious respect for the conventions of the genre. The pace of the story is perfectly controlled, with an incrementally tightening grip of tension, and the plot delivers enough unexpected turns to satisfy the genre’s aficionados. But, in addition to what might be rightfully expected, the author also brings to the telling of the story all the qualities that we associate with him: a supreme ability to evoke time and place, astute psychological insight and an elegant and sophisticated crafting of language that is a constant source of pleasure.
The imaginative richness of the language, however, is never indulgent or gratuitous and in a particularly disciplined way is always made subservient to the flow of the narrative. It allows him not only to unravel the central mystery of the missing woman but also to explore the delicate subtleties of a tentative parent-child relationship, the damaged Quirke’s search for healing, and today, when some of Ireland’s economic and spiritual secrets – “the seeds of a sour fruit” – are being increasingly released, the novel offers an uncompromising insight into the abuse of power. It is a power that Quirke comes to realise is “everywhere pervasive, wholly intangible” and to understand that “he lived in its atmosphere but rarely realised that he was breathing it”.
Ultimately, Elegy for Aprilis a novel that transcends any limitation of genre or categorisation, stands supremely confident in its achievement and, to this reader at least, reveals itself as good enough to take its place with anything John Banville has ever written.
David Park’s most recent novel, The Truth Commissioner, won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize