“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 even sexual lust, as by the rich effluvium of centuries of domination by the church and a state in its thrall, subservience to the English and to local Protestants, and an accommodation of concealed wrongdoing and diplomatic lie.
Banville has said that the detective story attracts him as a way to tell stories, which he claims haven’t really interested him in his “serious” fiction, and to create characters. The brilliant, eloquent, oblique, Beckettian and Henry Jamesian Banville appears to find new inspiration in the conventions of the genre. Convention can of course be liberating: when you force yourself to follow the rules of a sonnet, the very constraint can become a rich means of expression.
Still, Benjamin Black is hyperconscious of the conventions he has chosen to play with. Quirke, the brilliant amateur investigator who is something of a klutz with living persons, has as his sidekick Police Inspector Hackett, the seeming rustic who is in fact sharp as a tack. When we get to the fifth novel, Vengeance, there is a playful acknowledgment of the reverse mirroring of the Sherlock Holmes model when Hackett proposes: “I’ll introduce you as Dr. Watson.” You can exploit the known conventions as a shorthand, and then move forward with the exploration of a seriously shadowed world.
We are in these novels in Dublin of the 1950s, a time that Black chooses because he finds it “paranoid, guilt-ridden, beset by fear and loathing, and still shuddering in the after-effects of the war.” This Dublin is cold (or occasionally sweaty hot), foggy, smelling of coal fumes and manure (there are still horse-drawn drays), whiskey, and smoke (the consumption of cigarettes is epic). It’s Dublin before any economic miracles, a society dedicated to hypocrisy and manipulated by “fixers” like the hideous Joseph Costigan, a malevolent figure who pops up with diabolical regularity.
Black’s Ireland is a place of “secrets and lies,” as the American Rose Crawford puts it. It is dominated by the “whited sepulchers” of church and state: corrupt judges, venal ministers (of health, especially), corrupt heroes like Conor Latimer, who stood with Connolly and Pearse in the General Post Office during the 1916 Easter Uprising, but went on to molest first his son and then his daughter. And worst of all, a church hierarchy that thrives on lies, deception, and the capacity to impose silence on those who want to expose its machinations.
Quirke, the figure who holds the stories all together, is all the more a notable character because of the blank of his origins, a past that he would wish to forget and a hidden parentage that he will come to acknowledge openly only in the latest novel, Even the Dead. An apparent orphan, he has been brought up under the harsh discipline of Carricklea Industrial School, an experience that continues to exert traumatic force throughout his existence. Like Oedipus, that early detective undermined by a lack of knowledge of who his parents are, when he discovers the secret it is so close to home that he should have guessed. It was repressed knowledge, somehow of a piece with the drunken stupors he often lets himself lapse into (in parody of the drunken Irishman). No wonder Even the Dead will introduce the figure of Dr. Evelyn Blake, a psychotherapist with only a fragile hope of successful therapy. Quirke’s combination of delicate surgical touch with clumsiness in human relations makes him both a worthy and a somewhat unexpected addition to those humanly frail but courageous figures who people the detective tradition.
Black’s noir is often grim indeed: torture and rape, pornography, drugs, blackmail, spousal murder, suicide disguised as homicide, a botched abortion that leaves a young woman bleeding to death. But more important than these familiar acts of violence is a deeper, more horrifying endemic violence to which Quirke is sensitive because of his years at the Carricklea orphanage: abuse of children, especially sexual abuse of both girls and boys. This is what goes on at the institutions of claimed benevolence, St. Christopher’s school, St. Mary’s, and the Mother of Mercy Laundry, and it is truly horrifying. Behind them all stands a sinister group called the Knights of Saint Patrick that seems to have agents everywhere. They lock up unwed mothers, transport their babies for adoption in Boston, and turn orphanages into brothels for their members. What lies within the cloisters guarded by the likes of Sister Anselm and Sister Stephanus, Father Dangerfield and Father Honan, is Gothic, sordid, and sad. The noir genre allows Black to populate a world of the truly if entertainingly vicious.
Yet among the cast of evildoers, and the indifferent who let them get away with it, or the merely sad and downtrodden, there are the figures of relative righteousness, including Quirke the antihero and the determined police inspector Hackett. And then the women, who are of particular importance in Black’s fiction, illuminating a dark world even when guilty of rash villainy, such as Françoise d’Aubigny, who shot her husband’s head off—but he was trying to seduce their daughter—and Mona Delahaye, who caused mayhem by having an affair with her husband’s business partner’s son. They are all gorgeous, of course, and all find it expedient to go to bed with Quirke, who is irresistible to women. That’s a given, part of the convention. He is big, well dressed, and in Mona’s words “all muscle and fur,” though that doesn’t quite seem to fit with his decidedly unhealthy way of life.
Beyond Black’s femmes fatales there is the more interesting figure of Phoebe Griffin, raised as Quirke’s niece because after his wife Delia’s death in childbirth he could not cope and gave his baby daughter away to his half-brother Malachy and sister-in-law Sarah (the real love of Quirke’s life, though he instead married her sister Delia). We first see Phoebe attracted to Quirke sexually. When she discovers he is her father the result is estrangement, and a difficult entrance into her young adulthood. Phoebe raises the stakes of the whole series, becoming more interesting from novel to novel, a subtle and engaging character who transforms the sordid doings that surround her.
If Quirke is a dunce at social relations and prefers to deal with the dead, Phoebe is sensitive to the interactions of the living. Her circle of friends, almost a salon at one point, includes the actress Isabel Galloway, the reporter Jimmy Minor, and the Nigerian medical student Patrick Ojukwu. She takes in young women who emerge from the Dublin fog: Jimmy’s sister Sally Minor, come to investigate her brother’s disappearance, and one calling herself “Lisa Smith,” who will turn out to be Elizabeth Costigan, sweet daughter of a loathsome father. Phoebe’s relations with men all appear to be unsatisfactory, marked by violence or else indifference. The one moment of real passion in her life seems to come when she and Sally Minor, without quite meaning to, kiss long and hard. There is no sequel to that (not yet, at least), but Phoebe remains an elusive and surprising character.
The novel in which Phoebe emerges into prominence is about another friend, whom we never will meet. “It was the worst of winter weather, and April Latimer was missing,” Elegy for April begins.
For days a February fog had been down and showed no sign of lifting. In the muffled silence the city seemed bewildered, like a man whose sight has suddenly failed. People vague as invalids groped their way through the murk….
Echoes of Baudelaire’s “fourmillante cité/Cité pleine de rêves/Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant.…”
Elegy for April is my favorite among the Benjamin Black novels, in some large measure because of Phoebe’s transforming sensibility. It’s a novel about obsession. Her erotic obsession with the Nigerian student Patrick is replayed in a more excruciating register by April—when we learn of her story—and her brother Oscar Latimer. Phoebe will recall toward the climax April’s veiled confession by the pond in St. Stephen’s Green:
“The thing about obsession,” she said, still watching the spangled surface of the pond, “is that there’s no pleasure in it. You think at the start, if there is a start, that it’s the greatest delight you could know”—that word, delight, the way that she said it, had struck Phoebe as disturbing, almost indecent—“but after a while, when you’re caught in it and can’t get out, it’s a prison cell.”
The very word, obsession, becomes the clue (“Language is never innocent,” Dr. Blake will tell Phoebe in Even the Dead) that leads finally to Oscar Latimer’s truly mad confession of long-standing incest with April, and his account of arriving too late to prevent her bleeding to death from a self-administered abortion—or has he in fact sequestered her somewhere in England? Phoebe can never be sure. Oscar drives Quirke’s brand-new Alvis Super Graber Coupe off the cliff at Howth Head to complete his manic rant.
The scene is stylish, like the Alvis itself, over-the-top with a kind of perfect gravity of tone. That Alvis, which Quirke buys despite having no driver’s license and no insurance, itself becomes a participant in the drama even before its apocalyptic finale. Quirke finds that the Alvis looks at him
with a baleful and accusatory aspect. There was something about the set of the headlamps, their cold, alert, unblinking stare, that unnerved him and made him feel defensive.
This kind of primitive animism suggests a world, that of all good detective fiction, where everything is potentially a clue, where everything speaks of something else. Black is fully aware that Freud was a reader of Sherlock Holmes.
Confession is a central event in this and the other Black novels. It’s one of the satisfying things about detective stories in general: to have the criminal speak his crime at the end reassures the virtuous, and purges the poisoned social atmosphere. As in real life, confession makes things easier for those who sit in judgment. But confessions in Black’s novels are not so much a product of police interrogation as, seemingly, a speech act inevitably generated in a culture where sin and confession are the staff of life. At the end of Holy Orders, after Father Honan, inveterate child molester, takes his seat “in the gloom of the confessional,” Sally Minor, whose brother has been murdered instead of the priest, himself untouchable, shoots him dead. “It was a terrible noise. It seemed the confessional had exploded around her….” A very satisfying explosion that turns confessant against confessor to denounce, once again, the whited sepulchers.
The confessions furthermore aren’t conclusive. At the end of Elegy for April, we are still unsure of April’s fate. In other novels, it’s unclear that the guilty will ever face charges on the crimes Quirke and Hackett have brought to light. More alarming still is the fact that exposure of the crimes of the rich and powerful in church and state are always covered over, beginning with the child-smuggling scheme sponsored by the powerful Judge Griffin and the Boston millionaire Josh Crawford in Christine Falls, on to the discoveries of Phoebe and Quirke at the end of Holy Orders.
Phoebe asks how the shooting of Father Honan has been kept from the newspapers, to which Quirke replies: “Holy orders, from on high. The Archbishop’s Palace telephoned the newspapers, told them the Church was treating Honan’s death as an internal matter and said no report of it was to be printed yet, until they’d completed their inquiry.“ When Phoebe queries: “Can they do that? Can the Church do that?” Quirke from long experience replies: “They can.”
The culture of church-inflected confession leads in Even the Dead to the matter of secular confession in psychotherapy with the appearance of Dr. Evelyn Blake. Phoebe is her secretary and receptionist,
an assistant outside the confessional, monitoring the penitents as they silently waited their turn to slink into the shadowed chamber and tell their shameful sins.
In a novel where Quirke “discovers” the parenthood he’s always known but never acknowledged, Dr. Blake’s presence underwrites his reflections on the inescapabilty of the past. “Nothing ever gets lost, he thought, it’s all in there, somewhere, ready to spring out at the least hint of an invitation.” As he says to Evelyn Blake, now his lover (will that last?): “Strange, isn’t it, how you can know something and not know it at the same time?” To which she, a Jew who saw most of her family perish in the Holocaust, replies: “Not so strange…. Many people are capable of it—whole nations are.” Quirke comes to understand that what drives him in the investigation of crime is no great thirst for justice, but his very absence of a past, the blank of his early years, the aloneness that makes him want to follow the trail of another lost creature.
In this novel things come full circle from the first book of the series in Quirke’s acknowledgment of the great and greatly corrupt Judge Griffin as the father who put him away at Carricklea, only later to rescue him and bring him up as an “adopted” son, and, as his mother, the tortured and murdered Dolly Moran, once housemaid to the Griffins. Full circle also in the undoing of the archvillain Joe Costigan. When Quirke discovers that Costigan has killed Leon Corless, who as an employee of the Health Ministry has become a bit too interested in births and what has now become a profitable baby-selling scheme, Quirke passes that information on to Leon’s father Joe, a lefty who once fought in Spain with the Connolly Column. He knows that Joe Corless knows how to kill a man, and we have the satisfaction of finding Costigan’s body in Phoenix Park, his neck broken, in the same spot he killed Leon. Hackett now decides: “I’d say, Dr. Quirke, this’ll be one of those unsolved ones.” The ending then comes as a kind of homage to the final moments of Casablanca, as Inspector Hackett and Quirke stroll away from the scene of the not-to-be-solved crime.
Much of John Banville’s fiction is dark, too, and his superb fictional recreation of the Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable already takes us deep into the world of the thriller, though its main focus is on the mind of the double agent. But the Benjamin Black genre seems to have liberated him to create characters struggling, in the fog, with issues of good and evil—an idea so flatfooted you almost have to use conventional arts to inject energy into it. “The world is a dark place, and I find it endlessly funny,” he said in a Paris Review interview. Not so much funny, I would say, as fun: a place to try out your (limited) powers of detection, to stumble toward a solution, to try to connect to others. If plot and character appear largely absent from Banville’s fiction, the detective genre needs them, insists on them. In Black’s novels, they are richly imagined by someone who wants to be entertained by a dark place, and maybe even to find some illumination in it.