1950s Dublin: Elegy for April by Benjamin Black

Many of the very best mysteries are profoundly political. In digging deeply into what makes their characters tick, the writers locate the roots of their class origins and the wounds inflicted on them by their families, their neighbors, and society at large.

Not convinced? Think about the sociology underlying Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series . . . the vast power of the moneyed forces fought by V. I. Warshawski in Sara Paretsky’s novels . . . the legal battles between powerful institutions and hapless citizens in John Grisham’s work . . . the overtly political circumstances in John Sandford’s several dozen novels featuring Lucas Davenport, Virgil Flowers, and other protagonists.

Now add the Quirke series by Benjamin Black, the pen name of the Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville. Elegy for April is the fourth of Black’s seven novels about the alcoholic pathologist named Quirke in 1950s Dublin. (He has a first name, but we never learn it — just one example of the author’s sly humor.) The Quirke novels, all grounded in Dublin in the 1950s, explore the tight grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society and the crimes so often committed in her name. Quirke, though he has no official role as an investigator, is drawn into what usually prove to be murder cases by virtue of his family’s involvement. He collaborates with a senior police detective named Hackett, often outclassing him as an investigator.

Elegy for April (Quirke #3) by Benjamin Black (John Banville) ★★★★★

In Elegy for April, Quirke’s daughter, Phebe, complains that her friend April has disappeared. The story that ensues revolves around the young women’s circle of friends and April’s powerful and devout medical family, which includes Dublin’s leading pathologist (her brother) and the Minister of Health (her uncle). I won’t spoil the story by going any further into the plot.

Though Banville insists he writes mysteries strictly for fun and profit, it’s clear that his famously brilliant literary style suffers not at all in the process. Here’s an example of what I mean: “he was received by the Minister’s private secretary, an oddly implausible person by the name of Ferriter, plump and shabby, with lank black hair and pendulous jowls.” Now, I ask you: how can any discerning reader fail to be charmed by prose like that?

For additional reading

You might check out my review of another novel in the Dr. Quirke series: Dublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson? For links to my reviews of all the books, go to The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black.

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