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Benjamin Black's series of novels about a Dublin medical examiner called just Quirke, even by his own daughter, is not a nostalgic look back at the fifties; instead, these dark, lovely, and lyric novels quietly repel the reader with their insistent questioning of the nature of family. Who better to examine biological ties than Garret Quirke, an orphan who was taken in and favored by a prominent judge, only to be scorned by the judge's biological son, Malachy Griffin? After the death of Quirke's wife, the bereaved and drunken widower deposited his daughter Phoebe with the Griffins and then convinced himself that Phoebe is not his child, but the offspring of Celia Griffin, the sister of Quirke's late wife and the one he really loved. The silence that Phoebe has been raised in allows her to make a pass at Quirke. Her unfortunate miscalculation eventually uncovers the lies and leads to an uneasy relationship between father and daughter.
In CHRISTINE FALLS, Quirke cannot let go of the mysterious death in childbirth of the title character, who was once his adoptive father's servant. As Quirke acknowledges, he has an insatiable curiosity that typically ends in more trouble. Here, the search for Christine leads Quirke to a Catholic baby-smuggling ring and eventually back to the Griffins. Unable to fathom family loyalty, Quirke can be true only to his pathological need to pick and cut at the dead until they reveal all their secrets.
THE SILVER SWAN continues the theme of incestuous entanglements. Quirke gets involved with a murder suspect while Phoebe sleeps with her husband. Quirke has gone on the wagon—sort of: He still drinks a bit to prove to himself that he's not an alcoholic. The middle volume is disappointing in the way that too many second novels are, with events driven by coincidence and chance.
ELEGY FOR APRIL is the latest and the finest in the series. The opening finds Quirke in a rehabilitation center, where he is once again trying to wean himself off alcohol. After he checks himself out, he tries to help Phoebe locate a missing friend: April Latimer is a scion of a rich and powerful local family, which seems reluctant to look for her, even though Quirke has found blood in the floorboards of April's flat. The Latimer family is not only uninterested in April's whereabouts, they object strongly to Quirke's nosiness. The prime suspect is a Nigerian medical student, with whom Phoebe becomes involved. She has nothing if not dangerous taste in men. Meanwhile, Quirke becomes involved with Phoebe's friend Isabel in another quasi-incestuous relationship.
ELEGY is also the most poetically well-written of the three novels. The dark and cold images of a wintery Dublin permeate the novel, from dank flats to Quirke's sub-basement medical offices. The tone is set by the opening sentence, "For days a February fog had been down and showed no sign of lifting." The characters yearn for something light and warmer—an April that does not exist in any sense.
Quirke perceives the family as a rather tenuous institution, created more by the state than by some biological reality. The strongest bond is between spouses, but Quirke, having no parents on which to model such a relationship, winds up marrying the sister who slept with him rather than the sister he loved. If families do not exist, then loving an in-law (though defined as incest under British law) is not invalid. This model is echoed in the third volume by Rose, the widow of Quirke and Malachy's father-in-law, who has moved to Dublin to court Malachy. No wonder Quirke struggles to define what fatherhood is as he tentatively explores his relationship with Phoebe while he sleeps with one of her friends.
With no deep ties of blood, Quirke is skeptical about family loyalty. It is easy, therefore, for him to side with Christine Falls over the interests of those he grew up with. When Billy Hunt asks Quirke not to dissect the body of his drowned wife, Deirdre (aka Laura Swan), Quirke cannot fully appreciate Billy's grief and so suspects him of Deirdre's murder. His disloyalty is echoed by the Latimer family, less interested in finding their daughter than in keeping up appearances.
The final trope of all three novels is that of the double. In some ways, Quirke, with his underground exploration of corpses, is an unsavory doppelganger of Malachy, a family man, an admired obstetrician, and a bringer of new life. Quirke's other double is Inspector Hackett, who even looks like a squatter version of the pathologist. Hackett, however, generally follows legitimate lines of inquiry as opposed to Quirke's incurable nosiness. Then, there are the sisters, Delia and Celia, married to the two brothers, and the two Quirkes himself, sober or drunk, longing for and repelled by the possibility of love.
It is debatable whether the pseudonymous Benjamin Black is as good as the writer he doubles for, John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize for THE SEA. Both are capable of stunning prose and also of lesser attempts. Black is surely Banville's darker but equally worthy side.
All three books are performed eloquently by Timothy Dalton. He has a knack for capturing mood and nuance, though occasionally he sometimes gives some sentences more weight than they deserve. But he's a perfect match for the Black novels.
§ Karla Jay is a legally blind audio book addict, who lives in New York City, where she is Distinguished Professor of English and Women's Studies at Pace University.
Reviewed by Karla Jay, June 2010
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