By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt, $26, 304 pages
In the rain and the darkness and the remembered misery of a Catholic childhood in Ireland in the 1950s, that is where Quirke belongs. He is as quirky as anyone could want.
It is doubtful that anyone can write as well as Benjamin Black when it comes to a pyschological mystery buried within the shadows of hypocrisy. And it is significant that the silken skill with which he writes of past and present death matches the literary talent that marked the author in his incarnation as John Banville, winner of the Man Booker Prize. Mr. Black’s aptly named Quirke is quintessentially Irish in personality and seems automatically doomed to an Irish doom. Perhaps only Quirke the pathologist would stop in Dublin’s Grafton Street to buy violets from a flower stall to give to his daughter Phoebe while reflecting that violets “smelled a little like dead flesh.”
And only Quirke could combine the harshness of memory and history with his observation of a house with medallions on its gates and Latin legends printed below. “The house away off at the end of a curving drive amid flat expenses of lawn, was massive and dry. The trees were bare still, their branches etched in stark black against a sky of bird’s egg blue.” He adds dryly, “How quick priests had been, after the English went, to seize the best of what they had left behind.”
Ironically, for a man who lives in Ireland, Quirke hates rain.
“For as long as he could remember, rain semed to have been falling on his life He would wince when he heard the first hollow taps on the brim of his hat and saw the pavement in front of him grayly sprinkled.”
He notes that rain reminds him of being at Sunday evening devotions in the chapel at Carricklea, “The institution where he had spent the better or rather the worse - part of his childhood.”
The book is full of bitterness and memories so painful they are almost hallucinatory. This is one of the darkest mysteries Mr. Black has penned so far. Quirke is sick psychologically and physically and a sense of imminent death and disaster pervades the pages.
The plot is basic. A young reporter is beaten to death on a gypsy encampment near Belfast and when Quirke, as the pathologist, does a report on the body he recognizes as Jimmy Minor, a friend of his daughter Phoebe. Quirke has an ambiguous relationship with his daughter as he does with most women, recognizing his capacity to say the wrong thing at the wrong time to most of them. The lingering evil of Father Honan, the kind of priest who may forever haunt the Catholic church, is subtly portrayed, as is the sadness of Sally, the murdered man’s sister who finds her own way to vengeance by building a relationship with Quirke’s daughter.
Perhaps the most horrifying chapter in the book is Quirke’s visit to Trinity Manor that recreates the memories of his childhood and the institutions that had dominated it. Quirke’s strange journey through the house is a reminder of the man known as Nike, Dean of Discipline at Carricklea. He recalls that in his years at Carricklea Quirke had not been beaten very often by Nike and even if he had, that would not have been the thing that frightened him most. “It was a special kind of fear that Nike installed, intimate, warm and clammy and faintly indecent.”
The elderly man whom Quirke meets and talks with calls himself Thady, until they emerge from the past to the present when he calls himself Richie. As Quirke and his detective companion leave, he looks up at the “grey forbidding frontage of the house” and reflects that its bulk seemed to be surging forward as though it might crush the car and the three in it.
The sense of being haunted also follows Quirke’s daughter Phoebe who finds herself taking in a stranger who proves to be Jimmy Minor’s sister. They talk of Quirke, and Phoebe admits that she doesn’t really know her father and probably never would. She describes him as “obsessed with the past as if there’s a little boy hiding inside him and looking out through adult eyes at the world, trying to understand it and failing.”
Yet Sally’s target is neither Phoebe nor Quirke. The book reaches a new dark dimension with its description of Sally’s seeking out Father Honan in the confessional. He is looking forward to leaving for Africa where “sin was colorful, a joyful glorying in all the dark possibilities the world had to offer.”
And when Sally asks simply, “Who forgives you your sins, Father?” he feels “a shivery sensation” as he replies, “God does But it’s not my conscience we need to speak of here, is it?”
“Oh yes, Father, it is,” says Sally.