On the Track of Evil in Dublin

John Banville
John Banville; drawing by David Levine

“Death,” writes Walter Benjamin, “is the sanction of everything the storyteller has to tell.” And also: the storyteller “borrows his authority from death”; the endstop of death creates the meaning of a life recounted. The classic detective story shares this belief. It starts from a dead body. As the story moves forward in the inquest, it reaches back to reconstruct the events that lead up to that death: the narrative exists only to unearth and make present that past story, the story of the crime.

I sense that the Irish novelist John Banville’s turn to detective fiction in the persona of Benjamin Black, whom he calls “Banville’s dark brother,” has to do with this obsession with death as the “authority” of the tale. He has cleverly chosen as his protagonist Dr. Quirke, a pathologist who spends his life under the fluorescent lights of a basement dissecting room with cadavers, seeking to know the secret stories of the ends of their lives. Quirke might have been a surgeon, except that the living seemed to him more uncanny than the dead:

It sometimes seemed to him that he favored dead bodies over living ones. Yes, he harbored a sort of admiration for cadavers, these wax-skinned, soft, suddenly ceased machines. They were perfected, in their way….

That noirish line is from Christine Falls, Banville’s first novel as Benjamin Black. There now are seven that feature Quirke, and by the latest, Even the Dead, they make a series with a complex intertwining of places, obsessions, memories, and characters, many of whom return frequently: something like Raymond Chandler played through a Proustian woodwind, in stories that take us “back along the dark and tortuous route by which that cadaver had arrived in this place, under this pitiless light.” We can now look at the books as an ensemble that does something remarkable within the detective genre.

Black is particularly good at creating the meanders of what Roland Barthes called the “dilatory space” in the middle of any story that must tease out the clues and delay the ending. Things don’t move forward with the brisk dispatch of Sherlock Holmes; we wander through Dublin and its environs, stopping long in pubs and hotel dining rooms, drifting back into the past, all the while encountering a range of vivid minor figures sketched in high style, a spectrum of Dublin society from the gentry to the bar pulls.

The comparison to Raymond Chandler comes inevitably to mind since Black a few years ago in The Black-Eyed Blonde wrote a “new” Philip Marlowe novel, in homage to the master—possibly something he was put up to by a publisher, with results that seem to me smart but a bit tepid. The hard edge of Marlowe’s Los Angeles and the smoky incertitude of Dublin are different: Black’s is a world of smudges, not edges. It’s a world dominated not so much by money-lust, or…

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