By Benjamin Black
Read July 2020
This is the first book John Banville wrote as Benjamin Black and the second book of this Quirke series he is producing with this pen name. Quirke is a melancholy, often drunk, pathologist who manages to get involved in trying to understand cases others think should be considered closed. His inability to let them go reminds one of the character “Columbo” in the 1970’s TV series—always another question to consider. But in this case, Quirke is a hospital pathologist, not a police officer, and in this book, no police are involved in the case at all except when they are called to deal with people that end up dead after Quirke connects with them to talk about this case he can’t quite leave alone.
In the opening chapter we meet Malachy Griffen, an ob/gyn doctor who practices at the same hospital as Quirke. A sense of tension between the two is suggested in this opening scene which could be due to Griffen’s unexpected presence in Quirke’s office writing in a file. Certainly this unusual situation is what peaks Quirke’s interest in the case. We eventually learn that the tension is probably also associated with the unusual relationship between Quirke and Malachy. Malachy’s father rescued Quirke from an orphanage when he was a boy and raised him as a son, actually showing parental preference for Quirke as a son over sickly Malachy. Over the course of the book we learn more interesting and unusual details of their relationship which follow them to the present.
An aspect that separates this series from other crime/mystery books is the language. It’s not clipped but rather tends to be atmospheric and requiring involvement from the reader. It doesn’t rely on short chapters that end on a cliff that compel you forward. But you are drawn into the book to understand how the parallel story being told connects with the story Quirke is trying to dissect—which in this case requires involvement with living and, likely, lying people.
The time element of the story is not directly revealed, but it’s clearly not set in the present. No cell phones are used and orphanages still exist, among other differences with current society. These understated differences help pull the reader into this somewhat foggy world, shrouded in the gloomy weather, present but not explained melancholy of the characters, and likelihood of long-term deceptions that may never be fully revealed to the reader or the characters. I look forward to reading more of this series.