Elegy for April
By Benjamin Black (John Banville)
Read June 2020
This reader found a hard copy of Elegy for April in a Little Library on a road along a lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. This reader was unaware that Benjamin Black is the pen name Booker Prize winner and Dubliner John Banville has used to write crime novels featuring a Dublin pathologist named Quirke. Apparently Banville considers what he does as Black “a craft” and what he does as Banville “art” and he expects his Black books to remain in print longer than his Banville books 1. Well this reader is glad Banville created Benjamin Black and Quirke.
Quirke has some typical crime investigator attributes—-is single, drinks too much, and has family issues. But he is single because his wife died when his daughter was a baby and he gave her over to his sister and brother-in-law to raise. His family problems are driven in large part because Phoebe, his daughter, didn’t know Quirke was her real father until just a few years ago. Also, he really isn’t a crime investigator. His job is a pathologist at a hospital, but he hasn’t been there for a number of weeks while he was voluntary checked into a facility to dry out, and he seems not to spend much time there since he checked himself back out. When Phoebe contacts him to help her find a friend that’s been missing, he engages a real investigator in the local police department who is a friend.
Since the missing girl’s influential family is more worried about a scandal than finding her, a missing person’s report is never filed and the search for her is limited to Quirke’s poking around with some help from his detective friend. The mystery is eventually resolved but the mystery seems more of an excuse to describe wintery Dublin, consider the relationship between Phoebe and her father, delve slightly into the troubled past of each Phoebe and Quirke, describe Quirke’s interactions with Phoebe’s friends, and touch on Dublin’s views on race during the time of the novel, sometime in the 1950’s when Bing is still popular.
A reader unfamiliar with “Bing” and the war in which April’s dead father was an officer will likely not readily place the timeframe of the story except to note that it’s pre-cell phone. The timeframe of the story doesn’t really matter much as the dilemmas and conflicts touched on are fairly universal.
While Banville may consider his crime novel writing a “craft”, he does note he’s pretty good at it1 and this reader agrees. His writing enables the reader to feel the wintery cold and wet of the Dublin winter, see the dark lonely streets on which Phoebe walks towards home, hear the sound of the empty wine glass Quirke has drained before ordering a second, despite his intentions.
What a treat the Little Library box had for this reader. Now this reader will be seeking more Black novels for more excellently “crafted” crime novels more about the characters and their relationships with others and themselves and maybe a Banville novel as well to see what his “art” is like.
What a wonderful treat this visit to the Little Library provided. 1https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/booker-winner-drawn-by-appeal-of-black-magic-20080119-ge6meh.html