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by Benjamin Black, read by John Keating
Macmillan Audio, August 2013
Unabridged pages
ISBN: 1427231672

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is often a mistake when a series author kills off one of his more interesting recurring characters. Benjamin Black takes this risk in HOLY ORDERS, his latest novel about Dr. Quirke, a 1950s Dublin pathologist, who inevitably gets involved in finding the murderers of the corpses he is called upon to dissect. Quirke is, as he acknowledges, more comfortable among the dead than the living, so his poking around in police business comes naturally to him. By now, his friend Inspector Hackett knows that Quirke will be unable to resist looking into a crime, so he invites the pathologist along on his rounds.

The victim this time is Jimmy Minor, the pint-sized, exuberant reporter, who has popped up, usually trying to fish out some leads from pub patrons, in the previous volumes. He was a close friend of April Latimer, who disappeared in ELEGY FOR APRIL and a casual pal of Phoebe, Quirke's daughter. After Jimmy is brutally beaten up, sexually mutilated, and then thrown into a canal, speculation arises as to Jimmy's sexual orientation. In keeping with the era when homosexuality was still "the love that dare not speak its name" in Oscar Wilde's native land, people speculate vaguely as to whether Jimmy was "that way" or "not into girls." His diminutive stature somehow fuels the speculation, as if tall, portly men like Wilde himself were not "that way."

Quirke feels that no justice will be done for Jimmy, despite the fact that the reporter's employer, a prominent local newspaper, tries to make a good story out of his murder. The trail points in several directions. Was Jimmy investigating Father Mike, a popular priest who worked among the poor and the gypsies and who is now being suddenly shipped off to Africa by his order? Were the gypsies themselves the assassins? Might one of Jimmy's relatives have had bad dealings with the IRA? Of had one of Jimmy's older stories come back to haunt him?

Quirke and Hackett interview all the likely suspects, as Quirke also faces a new demon. He is not feeling like his old self, he thinks he might be hallucinating, and he sees a strange light from the corner of his eye. The fact that he is nearly sober most of the time makes these symptoms even more frightening. Can he, Dublin's most knowledgeable man about the dead, face the possibility of his own mortality?

Phoebe plays a larger role here than she did in previous novels in this procedural series. Phoebe assumed that Jimmy was a casual friend, but his communications with relatives make it clear that he was quite taken with her. How could she not have suspected? How could she just have assumed that Jimmy was "that way"? Jimmy's death makes her question her own relationship with David Sinclair, Quirke's assistant. Is it more serious than she thinks? Will he want to get married? And does her lack of intense interest in any man indicate that she, too, might be "that way"?

As in the other works that award-winner John Banville has written as Benjamin Black, the Quirke novels capture the feeling of 1950s Dublin and the issues that people were grappling with in the years following World War II. The story here is slighter than the others in the series, somewhat disappointingly so, though the further development of Phoebe's character is a welcome addition.

John Keating performed the last Quirke novel, VENGEANCE. By now, he is at home with the characters, and he is a versatile performer. He does make one awkward choice for an audio book: Quirke's inner thoughts are relayed to the listener sotto voce. While a stage whisper might be perfect for revealing a player's mind in the theater, this technique is quite annoying on audio because the listener has to keep turning the sound up to hear Quirke's musings. And then the regular narrative is too loud. Drivers, in particular, will not want to be distracted by having to fiddle constantly with the volume. Keating needs to find another way to convey the inner Quirke.

A book by Benjamin Black that is not as brilliant as his others still rises far above the average procedural. There were phrases so good that I wanted to rewind and hear them more than once. Black's Dublin is a palpable place, damp and moody, and his characters are not easily forgettable. In Keating's generally competent hands, this thoughtful narrative comes to life through the misty Dublin streets. Unlike Jimmy, Quirke is a sad but stoic survivor, and his life in and out of the autopsy room is well worth following.

An avid audiophile, Karla Jay is a retired professor of English and Women's & Gender Studies. She is a frequent contributor to this site.

Reviewed by Karla Jay, August 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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