“I went with you, over to the side of night.” In what I believe is the best in this series set in the 1950s, Dublin pathologist Garret Quirke has finally begun to mend some of his most troubled relationships, including an ongoing battle with alcoholism, falling victim in this novel to the romantic vulnerability of a deeply lonely heart. Quirke’s past is littered with mistakes, a slowly-healing estrangement with his daughter the most painful, his work a palliative to chronic discontent. Now the country is anxious to move on from war, a world tainted by the systematic annihilation of the Jews, the vestiges of anti-Semitism that linger in a predominately Christian population.
When DI Hackett requests a pathologist to certify the violent death of an influential newspaper magnate, Richard “Diamond Dick” Jewel, Quirke is on call, happy to participate in another investigation with Hackett, his curiosity piqued by the blend of crime and forensics. While suicide appears obvious at the scene, such an act is unacceptable in Catholic Dublin in that conservative era. The cause of death is soon amended to murder, a crime with no shortage of suspects to be interviewed, from Jewel’s immediate business rival to others locals with potentially sinister motives. Quirke casually insinuates himself into the investigation, as is his way, searching for information or behavioral aberrations that might reveal the nature of the dead man and his enemies.
Quirke’s adventures are always personal, Black’s protagonist riddled with regret and a pervasive sense of loss over roads not traveled. In a committed relationship with actress Isabel Galloway, who gives him plenty of space to engage his demons, Quirke is flummoxed by his immediate attraction to Jewel’s widow, Francoise d’ Arbigny, a sophisticated woman with haunted eyes who appeals to his sympathetic nature. Her striking good looks and seductive manner do little to dissuade him. Long past the foolish impulses of a young man’s infatuation, Quirke nevertheless succumbs to the charms of the widow, sleeping with Francoise, his objectivity subtly altered by this emotional complication. On dangerous territory, Quirke has much to lose in his abandonment of tradition and common sense, a seasoned professional blissfully unaware of his vulnerability.
Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, novelist John Banville embraces both characters and plot against the rich texture of post-war Dublin, his elegant prose defining a lonely man’s attempt at intimacy at a time when regret and ongoing amends are insufficient to soothe a damaged spirit. Francoise awakens the passion of a young man’s heart, if couched in maturity, the mystery winding around the lovers in an intricate web of broken commitments, betrayals, consequences and murder.
Recapturing the era after World War II, Black reminds us of the predictability of conflict, the demands of the present and Quirke’s reliable fallibility: “He had never tried to hide from himself his taste for the hazard of sin.”