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VINE VOICEon 6 May 2013
Unlike most detective fiction, this first novel in Benjamin Black's Quirke series is worth reading simply for the writing alone. Not surprising, given that Black is in fact Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville. That said, I absolutely hated Banville's 'The Sea', so was very surprised to enjoy this opener in the Quirke series as much as I did.

If anything, it's light on plot, driven instead by the atmosphere of 1950's Dublin and the wonderful characters. Quirke becomes a more tortured, darker soul as the book unravels, setting things up nicely for future stories, no doubt. The darker side of the Catholic church is also exposed, and, although it's been done in other books as it's familiar theme, it's handled well here. All the characters are vibrant, flawed people; you may not warm to many of them, but they are certainly real and plausible. Black also weaves in a sub-plot involving characters in Boston, tying the two strands of the book up in the third stage of the novel. It feels a little contrived towards the end, but the writing never flags, and it is the crisp, direct style, the beautifully drawn atmosphere (almost cinematic, like something Sam Mendes might direct) - that keeps you rivetted as a reader. It's like Chandler crossed with the very best of Irish writers.

This is one of the few crime/mystery genre novels that I think would bear a second reading, the style is that good. Already looking forward to more in the series. Superbly crafted, superior fiction.
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on 26 June 2017
I like crime novels but find many of them are poorly written. This was in a different class, the characters were beautifully drawn and the plot hung together really well.

I have ordered the next book in the series.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 May 2008
The blurb on the book cover states "introduces Quirke - a truly original addition to the pantheon of crime-fiction detectives". So I was expecting a crime novel. This is not the case. It's an interesting and engaging story that slowly unpeels layers of hypocrisy and deceit among well-heeled members of Irish Catholic society in 1950s Dublin and Boston, USA. I admire the author's writing: he has a wonderful ability to conjure up images with a few words. There are no over-used cliches to be seen. The build up of the story is such that the rather perfunctory ending is unsatisfactory.
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With the same care that he devotes to his "serious" fiction, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, under the pen name of "Benjamin Black," plumbs Dublin's Roman Catholic heritage in a mystery which examines the question of sin. The result is a vibrantly alive, intensely realized story of Dublin life and values in the 1950s--a mystery which makes the reader think at the same time that s/he is being entertained. Unlike most of the characters, Quirke, the main character, holds no awe for the church. In his early forties, "big and heavy and awkward," Quirke is a pathologist/coroner at Holy Family Hospital, a man who "prizes his loneliness as mark of some distinction." A realist, he has seen the dark side of life too often to hold out much hope for the future, his own or anyone else's.

His vision of humanity is not improved when he goes to his office unexpectedly one evening and finds his brother-in-law, famed obstetrician Malachy Griffin, altering documents regarding the death of a young woman, Christine Falls. Quirke's autopsy of Christine shows, not surprisingly, that she has died in childbirth, a "fallen woman" in the eyes of the church. The nature of Christine's sin, however, does not begin to compare to the sins that Quirke uncovers during his investigation of her death and the fate of her child.

John Banville (Black) has always been at least as interested in character as plot, and this novel is no exception. Quirke lived in an orphanage before being unofficially adopted by Judge Garrett Griffin, father of Dr. Malachy Griffin, who is obviously involved in the case. Developing on parallel planes, the novel becomes a study of Quirke and his personal relationships, at the same time that it is a study of Christine Falls and what she represents about Dublin society, the medical profession, and the church and its influence. Gradually, the reader learns about the Knights of St. Patrick, a conservative Catholic organization; the association of the Knights with American charities; the behind-the-scenes administration of orphanages and convents; and the nature of power in upper-echelon Dublin.

Murders, torture, beatings, and violence keep the action level high (and a bit melodramatic), in keeping with the great, old-fashioned tradition of 1950s mystery-writing. A change of location from Dublin to Boston broadens the scope, connecting the Dublin mystery to the history of the Irish and their traditions in Boston. The author's use of parallel scenes emphasizes contrasts and similarities (a Christmas party in Dublin vs. a Christmas party in Boston, for example), and he maintains a conversational voice appropriate for Quirke. After this fine debut mystery, one can easily imagine Banville developing the character of Quirke in future mysteries and becoming, like Graham Greene, a writer of both serious literary fiction and "entertainments." Mary Whipple
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 September 2014
Since first introducing the pathologist, Dr Quirke, in this book in 2006, the 2005 Booker Prizewinner, John Banville [writing as Benjamin Black] has written six more mystery novels. Whilst I have read all of Banville’s novels, I am just starting off with Black.

The novel is set in Dublin and Boston in the 1950s with, for me, the former being much more assured, partly because of its intensely claustrophobic landscape, and the characters much more credible. The forty-something Quirke, who has no first name, seems to be in a perpetual state of drunkenness and self-hate following the death of his wife, Delia, in childbirth. His brother-in-law, Mal[achy] Griffin, is a consultant obstetrician working in the same hospital. Throughout the book, Black never lets up on the animosity between Quirke and Mal that has many causes, created and reinforced over many years.

The exact period of the story is not given and the descriptions and background are sufficiently vague as to make its identification impossible. The Dublin of the time, as later, was dominated by the power of the Catholic church and the hidden mafia-like networks [Knights of St. Patrick abound] that linked its most important and influential citizens. The Christine Falls of the title only makes a brief appearance in the book but she sets in train a series of activities and events, including deaths and beatings-up, on both sides of the Atlantic that resonate throughout the book and leave Quirke an even more damaged individual.

Banville chillingly describes the fear Quirke feels when first threated by a couple of ‘heavies’, ‘Early rage or hurt or unlovedness had hardened for them into a kind of indifference, a kind of tolerance, almost, and they would beat or maim or blind or kill without rancor, going about their workaday task methodically, thinking of something else.’

Mal, his wife, Sally, and their 20-year old daughter, Phoebe, as well as his father, Garrett, ‘the Judge’, who is about to be made a Papal Count, are all drawn into the story and provide a stark contrast to Quirke’s more questionable drinking companions at McGonagle’s Bar, including a Brendan Behan lookalike [‘Barney Boyle’]. The author pays attention to the everyday and, as the story progresses, the reader comes to understand Quirk and his demons as well as the hypocrisy of the church and the Irish establishment; it was particularly chilling to read this story in 2014 when so much has recently been published, and accepted, about the abuses of pregnant girls. Here the repulsive organisation is the Mother of Mercy Laundry.

However, it is when the story shifted to America, and especially when Quirke and Phoebe, for very different reasons, visit his father-in-law, self-made billionaire, Josh Crawford, that the story comes somewhat astray. The author introduces a series of characters, Crawford, his much younger predatory wife, Rose, assorted nuns and priests, a violent chauffeur and his very different women who are much more difficult to accept. We first meet Josh in a two-page tour-de-force that he delivers about the strength of the expatriate Irish and what Boston and America owes to them. It is an impassioned piece of writing but does not really convince as much as the earlier writing set in Dublin, although Crawford’s stated aim of ‘planting souls’ is at the heart of the book.

It is, however, the character of Quirke that stands at the centre of this novel and the other characters, and the reader, feed off him. This means that there are some longueurs when he is not in the picture.

This debut book benefits from the mysteries within Quirke’s own family and it will be interesting to see how he performs in later novels where, presumably, the investigations will be much more external. This is an interesting first attempt, although not as accomplished as the more recent debut murder mystery novel featuring Cormoran Strike by J. K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith.

It will also be interesting to see to what extent Banville’s rather spare ‘literary’ fiction style will be changed, if at all, by his forays into the detective mystery genre where, arguably, plotting is more to the fore. Finally, mention should be made of Banville’s touches of humour in what is a rather dark book – not the least of which are Nurse Philomena’s two aids to getting Quirke back on his feet after hospital.
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on 27 December 2013
I had high hopes for this book. And in some respects, I wasn't disappointed. I liked the 1950s Dublin setting, I was intrigued by Quirke and his relationship with his family, and his niece in particular; the prose was as elegant and measured and the storyline as well-crafted as expected, but the fact is, I have tried to read this book twice, and have not yet managed to finish it.

In a weird sense, the book's strengths are also its greatest flaws. The writing is so measured that I find myself in Rhett Butler mode (`frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn'), and while there is a some sense of dark intrigue in the Quirke chapters, there is an overall emotional detachment in the narrative which gives much of the storyline, in my opinion, a perfunctory feel. Yes, there is marital abuse, exploitation and murder, but each event comes across as an intellectual event, rather than an emotional one.

I don't need to like the characters, but I do need to care about them and this book held me far too much at arm's length for that. I won't be giving it a third chance, I'm afraid.
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on 22 October 2009
I really enjoyed this book. While agreeing that it wasn't the mystery novel it was hyped up as being - nor were there the insights into pathology that you get from Waking the Dead or Silent Witness - it was the first novel that I have read that attempts to portray post-colonial, de Valera's Catholic-constitutioned Ireland of the 1950s. It was dark and atmospheric, and succeeded in portraying a the perspective of a man who couldn't go along with the secrecy and hypocrisy of the times, who was probably a product of some shameful tryst, hence his early upbringing in an orphanage. Another reviewer stated that today we know about what went on in Ireland at that time, that it's been well documented. The point is, it hadn't at that time and no one talked about it. Quirke is flawed, but brave. The novel is elegantly written with fine attention to the choice of words. I disagree with the reviewer who thought it could be set anywhere - a number of street names in the book are real, placing it firmly in Dublin. My niggle (and it's a tiny one) is the use of the surname and omission of a forename - it's been done before by Colin Dexter.
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VINE VOICEon 9 December 2007
I find John Banville's 'literary' novels unreadable, but here, in a new venture, he combines elegance with readability to deliver character, plot and atmosphere. Dublin in the 50s plays a large part, and very grim it is too: priest-bound, stuffy and snobbish. Quirke is a promising central character, even if a drink problem is a rather too common device for both professional and amateur detectives. He grapples with guilt, although not Catholic guilt, over the wife who died in childbirth and the woman he really loved but let slip away; and the unfolding plot delivers some stunning news about his young niece.

It's not a whodunnit, but it still springs surprises. I'm looking forward to the second installment.
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VINE VOICEon 16 December 2008
For someone who doesn't like hard liquor, Dr. Quirke manages very well at disguising this. In fact, the story is something of a disguise from the outset.

Altered death certificate, orphaned babies dispatched in secret to USA, an uncle, a father, a whole miasma of family members, each with a secret to hide, the Catholic Church with a secret to hide. There's more but the list is too long.

I'd never heard of the author nor did I buy the book because of his literary prowess once I'd read the blurb. I was intrigued by a crime story set in 1950s Dublin. And I was not disappointed.

I care not if the plot was fairly predictable since I was looking for atmosphere, characterization and a moving (in more ways than one) storyline. I loved the emotionally cold Quirke, a pathologist who, finally in his life, wanted to do something good, something which would make a difference. He does and it did - to every character in the book - and there are many.

The story is well reviewed elsewhere. Suffice for me to say that this is a book I throughly enjoyed. I read it in one sitting as I became involved in the route Quirke was taking. My only criticism is that the ending seemed rather a cop-out; I would have loved to have followed the results to their bitter end, if only to see if Quirke really had succeeded in his goal. We can only hope and, as the saying goes, 'it is better to travel in hope than...'!
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on 23 June 2014
See above - I have not read the book yet as I have recently purchased a Kindle and am busy reading downloads.
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