Following a work’s office party, Quirke – the irascible Irish pathologist, and central character in the Dublin-set crime novels by Benjamin Black – one night stumbles across his brother-in-law amending a report in his office in the bowels of the building, drawing his attention to the body of a young woman who recently fell to her death down a flight of steps. Quirke’s suspicion is raised by the need for the document’s alteration, and – fuelled by his mistrust and dislike of his obstetrician brother-in-law – he decides to look into the circumstances surrounding her death…
The Quirke novels by Benjamin Black – pen-name of multi award-winning author John Banville – are atmospheric and dark, with a seedy undercurrent running through their core. They deal with damaged, dysfunctional families, long-forgotten secrets, dark deeds and shady characters. I would offer up these novels as a counter argument to anyone who dismisses the whodunnit as being nothing more than overly-complex and densely-plotted, populated by one dimensional characters committing variations of anodyne murder. The Quirke novels transcend the crime genre, perfectly evoking 1950s Dublin and the dark underbelly of the city and its religious and social influence. We see the real impact of sudden death, sometimes the visceral detail of murder scenes, and the darkest recesses of human depravity. The author pulls no punches in depicting life in the 1950s, and manages to show both the lower classes and higher classes of society. In the Quirke novels, the distinction between classes is often a key element of the plot.
Christine Falls is the first novel in the series and is a superb introduction to the cast of characters and their place in post-war Ireland. Unlike other books with a recurring character, the story arc extends across the entire series, so events in one book often directly impacts on future novels, as well as characters and events being cross-referenced. This is one detective series that you should definitely read in order.
Quirke himself is fascinating, richly drawn and intoxicatingly flawed. He is often melancholic, fond of his women and his drink, instantly relatable. The quality of the prose is – as you’d expect from a Booker prize winning author – outstanding, and refreshingly unpretentious. Banville is unflinching in his criticism of patriarchal organisations and their god-like involvement in the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. Quirke clearly chares facets of Banville’s character, albeit his dogged pathologist is a damaged version, and the background of Quirke’s childhood and upbringing paints a realistic shaping of the man we encounter in the novels. This novel will appeal to both crime fans and readers who enjoy historical fiction. It’s well-written, beautifully-paced, and offers a genuinely believable central character whose job sets him in an ideal position as a crime-solving protagonist. Latterly Banville has dropped the pseudonym Benjamin Black and reverted to his real name, and expanded the Quirke universe by creating the character of Inspector Strafford whose appearances in both Snow and April in Spain bode well for the series’ future. Highly recommended.