John Banville is an award winning author of literary fiction, one with an impeccable writing career spanning more than half a century. Since 2006, under the pen-name Benjamin Black, he has published a series of crime novels featuring the forensic pathologist Quirke, set in 1950s Dublin. Quirke is a fascinatingly flawed character, with a weakness for the ladies and a fondness for the bottle. So far there have been seven titles in the series.
In 2020 John Banville published Snow, featuring Detective Inspector Strafford, also in the same time setting and location of the Quirke novels. I really enjoyed that novel, and April in Spain, the latest offering from Banville, has been advertised variously as both a Quirke novel and a Strafford one.
Quirke and Strafford couldn’t be more different. Where Quirke is flawed and self-destructive, Strafford is scholarly and determined. The first half of April in Spain details a holiday in San Sebastian in which Quirke and his wife, Evelyn, come across a young Irish woman who looks remarkably like a friend of his daughter’s who disappeared four years previously, presumed dead. This touches on a previous novel in the Quirke series called Elegy for April (which I hadn’t read) and this current book acts almost as a sequel. But be warned – there are many spoilers for that novel, so your enjoyment will be much stronger if you’re familiar with the events of Elegy for April.
April in Spain isn’t so much a whodunnit as a why-and-howdunnit. As ever with Banville/Black’s novels, the quality of writing is superb. It is extremely readable, and even if the plot risks disappointing readers seeking out a traditional murder mystery, for those wanting an intelligent literary crime novel it definitely delivers. Strafford makes an all-too brief appearance, but it’s a crucial and dramatic one. There’s a memorable psychopath called Terry whose presence calls to mind Pinkie from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but where the novel really excels is in its first half where we spend time with Quirke and Evelyn, and see at first hand their realistically complex marriage. The novel’s historical aspects feel authentic and there’s a nice contrast between sunny Spain and the events taking place in rainy, windswept Dublin.
It’s almost as if, in writing Snow, John Banville was wanting to cast off his pseudonym Benjamin Black and write a literary crime novel under his own name. And he managed that with a great deal of success. I loved Snow, and felt the pacing was perfect, masterfully balancing the mystery aspects of the traditional detective story with that of a literary novel. April in Spain seems less finely blended, with the first half appearing more literary and the second half more fast-paced and plot-driven. And yet it still works. I had a great time reading it, even if it doesn’t quite come across as accomplished as the first Strafford novel. However I still have no problem recommending it, and I look forward greatly to reading more books in the series.