Cover image of "Even the Dead," a novel about Dublin's answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

It’s tempting to think that there’s something in the air in Ireland that would move Irish writers to conjure up such thoughts as this in the musings of a Dublin coroner when meeting an old friend in the police: “they were a pair, no doubt of that, though what they were a pair of, he wasn’t sure.” And that suspicion takes on greater credibility when he later adds: “They had been through half a dozen cases together; did this mean they constituted a duo, a team? There was something faintly absurd about the notion, and Quirke dismissed it. He had never been part of a team in his life, and it was too late to start now.” So goes the thinking of the man who is, more or less, Dublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, rolled into one.

But wait. They’re not Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Quirke (no first name) is a physician, Dublin’s chief coroner, and his friend is Detective Inspector Hackett of the Garda. They bear not the slightest resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They have come together once again because a young man thought to have been a suicide has instead, apparently, been murdered. Though the time period is never specified, it’s clearly sometime in the 1950s or early 60s at the latest.

Ireland is the same poor country it had been for centuries, long before the recent boom that first lifted its economy into the heights of wealth and then sent it crashing below. In “this mean and mendacious little city,” as Quirke thinks of it, alcohol almost invariably fuels social interactions, and alcoholism is rampant. In this setting, the Catholic Church reigns supreme and untouchable — and yet when Quirke and Hackett deduce that the Church is somewhere in the background of this latest murder, they don’t hesitate to take it on, all-powerful or not.

Even the Dead (Quirke #7) by Benjamin Black (John Banville) ★★★★★

Clever plotting

All too often, I feel manipulated by the authors of detective fiction. Plots depend on extremely unlikely coincidences, and authors shamelessly conceal facts to heighten suspense. None of this is the case in Even the Dead, or, for that matter, any of the other novels in the brilliant Quirke series. As coroner, Quirke concludes that a suicide is not a suicide and informs Hackett in hopes of launching an intelligent investigation. Using a combination of deductive reasoning, guile, and sheer chutzpah, the two barrel through all obstacles to a satisfactory conclusion.

In the process — almost as a bonus — Quirke, who was raised in an orphanage, learns who his parents were. It’s a momentous and satisfying discovery.

Masterful styling

Even the Dead, like its six predecessors in the Quirke series, is not just a deeply engaging and suspenseful mystery. It’s also a brilliant example of English prose. For example, “Love, Quirke had long ago decided, was a word people used when their own emotions overwhelmed them and they felt helpless. It was like saying someone was a genius, or a saint, as if at a certain point a barrier was crossed and ordinary human standards no longer applied.” The book is full of provocative thoughts like this, invariably couched in elegant language that seems as though its was effortless to write.

About the author

Benjamin Black is the pen name John Banville uses to write the Quirke series. In Great Britain, Banville is better known, at least in literary circles, as the multiple award-winning author of dozens of novels, plays, and screenplays. He is usually described as a winner of the Man Booker Prize.

For more great reading

I’ve reviewed all the novels published to date in this series at The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black.

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