John Banville, thy name is … Gabriel Byrne? Yes, though with a couple of degrees of separation. The fine Irish novelist with a touch of Joyce has also been the prolific producer of a superb mystery series written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, featuring the aptly named Quirke, a depressive pathologist with a taste for the brandy, whiskey, wine or just about any adult beverage known to man.
Or woman. There are quite a few of those in Quirke’s life as well despite his lugubrious mien and cadaverous interests. (“For as long as he could remember, rain seemed to have been falling on his life.”) Enter the perfectly cast Gabriel Byrne as Quirke, who has already shot three of the six books with screenplays by Andrew Davies (many "Masterpiece" series) and Conor McPherson (many excellent plays). No official word yet on where it will air in the U.S. If you happen to be in Edinburgh Aug. 22 there's a screening.
The latest book, “Holy Orders,” is just out. It’s an excellent addition to the series, opening with the murder of a reporter, a friend of sorts with Quirke’s daughter in previous books. He had been interviewing some tinkers in connection with a local priest.
It’s 1950’s Dublin, and we have to keep reminding ourselves of that because Black, unlike Banville, does not dwell on time and place, something that the TV series probably will correct. He’s much more concerned with the private lives of Quirke and, increasingly, his daughter, Phoebe.
It has been the mark of post-Parker mysteries to spend more and more time on the protagonists’ private lives. If Agatha Christie were writing today even Miss Marple would have a sex life. Still, those private lives inform and complement the mysteries at hand, whether they’re by Stieg Larsson or P.D. James.
Black breaks out of the pack because it’s all reversed. The mysteries inform and complement the characters. Critics who cavil at the deficiencies in Black’s story development are missing what makes the books so good. It barely matters who done it. (Banville/Black is also the author of the upcoming Philip Marlowe novel, "The Black-Eyed Blonde.")
Those cadavers, for example, aren’t there for CSI gruesomeness or to play off Inspector Morse squeamishness. They’re there to underscore Quirke’s own doom-ridden interest in life. “You’ve lived too long among the dead, Quirke,” he’s told.
Though Quirke approaches the world with an “I can’t go on, I must go on” interest in helping Detective Inspector Hackett’s investigation of the murders of said cadavers, he also realizes their success might be limited by powers that can’t be fought.
A fellow named Costigan who had Quirke beaten up in a previous book, is Dublin’s evil overseer and Quirke says of him:
“He explained to me once that there are two worlds, the one what we — you and me and all the other poor idiots — think we live in, and the real one, behind the illusion, where people like him are in charge. Where the real decisions are made, where the necessary actions are taken.”
Part of that power structure is the Catholic Church. Quirke was raised, and abused, by the priests before getting adopted. Repression was everywhere and the secrets and lies kept adding up as Quirke gave up his own daughter, who thinks Quirke’s stepbrother is her real father as the series opens.
Phoebe’s story is at least as interesting as Quirke’s in “Holy Orders.” The most intriguing mystery isn’t who killed the reporter and why, but whether Phoebe will have a romantic relationship with the reporter’s sister. I can say no more.
Black is not nearly as abstract as Banville, which is perhaps his only bow to genre writing. Still, the prose is the same high quality; as depressing as the subject matter may be, Black is an excellent host. As with Banville, you might want to keep a dictionary handy if your tablet doesn’t have one built in. “Harry could smell the lingering mundungus stink of his breath.”
Perhaps I’ll tell that to the next smoker I meet. Along with the advice to read Benjamin Black.
Here's a trailer for the series:
More on Black:
This program aired on August 20, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.