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3.5 stars . . . noir without the bite
on 28 June 2014
. . the bite, that is, of well-constructed detective fiction. Despite all the blurbs on my paperback cover about how great the plot is, I'm here to tell you that the plot here is really quite perfunctorily handled, and the identification of the killers is almost anti-climactic. What replaces it is "atmosphere," and Black (Banville) is very good at that. The book is very readable, and the writing is fresh and alert and lively, even when the characters are often not lively. So by all means give it a go -- it's not dull . . .
BUT be aware that the real focus of the writer's interest here is the inner lives of Quirke, Black's pathologist protagonist, and his daughter, Phoebe. In fact, when one is worrying about spoilers in writing about this novel, it isn't plot details that one is worrying about: it's about revealing possibly too much of Quirke's state of mind. That state of mind is vividly rendered, as is the behavior it occasions, and the reader of the Quirke series is likely to speculate on its relation to Quirke's history, going back to his days as a child in the care of the Catholic authorities at Carricklea. What isn't so clear is how this attention to Quirke's consciousness fits in with his solving of the mystery of the death with which the book opens -- the death of Jimmy Minor, a reporter and friend of Phoebe's, whose battered body is found in a canal in Chapter 1. Is it a distraction, as he works with Inspector Hackett to solve the mystery, or does it help him solve it? I don't think I'm giving much away when I say that it isn't a distraction, but it's not clear that it's a help.
Jimmy has left behind notes that indicate a couple of directions of inquiry for a story he was working on. One has to do with the Church (no surprise, given the novel's title), and the other has to do with a clan of traveling people, whose presence in Ireland is one of the odder features of its social texture. A lot of the atmospheric writing has to do with both Church and travelers, who are in effect closed subgroups of Irish society and thus pose challenges to people like Quirke and Hackett, who need to get at some of their secrets. Given that similarity, it's hardly surprising that the two are connected in this particular plot.
The book's main weakness, I think, is its attention to Phoebe's state of mind (the writing is so engaging that the skeletal plot quality doesn't bother me). We are given to believe that Phoebe's discovery, many books ago, that Quirke, whom she has thought her uncle, is her real father, is an ongoing trauma. This has ceased to be credible -- we're talking about a grown-up intelligent woman who has in fact fairly good relations with both Quirke and the couple who brought her up. The reader might be forgiven for feeling that she needs to just suck it up and get on with things. And Black might be thinking that too -- and so he adds the possibility of a new dimension to Phoebe that is frankly not very interesting -- and certainly not connected substantively to the matter in hand. Phoebe is frankly becoming a pain for the reader, and Black needs to write her out and let Quirke get on with the job. There is a hint that he might be getting ready to do that.
So read this for the atmosphere -- repressive Catholic Dublin, c. 1956. Savor the rain and the streets and the bars, the texture of the travelers' camp, the texture of Quirke's consciousness. Remember that guns showing up in Act 1 will be fired by Act 4. And hope that Black is not losing the capacity to surprise us . . .