Cover image of "April in Spain," a historical murder mystery

Now, here’s a historical murder mystery about a murder that never happened. Leave it to John Banville to turn the old trope on its head and produce a compelling novel of suspense in which no one dies until the end. After all, the man won the Booker Award, and he is nothing if not clever. Banville wrote the first seven novels in the Quirke series under the pen name Benjamin Black, and every one was suspenseful until the end. April in Spain, the eighth, appears under his own name. In every respect it’s a worthy successor to the others. But the first seven books are all set in Dublin, where Dr. Quirke is the State Pathologist. April in Spain leaves behind the gloom and drizzle of Dublin and takes the alcoholic amateur sleuth into the sunshine for a change.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A historical murder mystery set on the Spanish coast

As readers of any of the previous Quirke novels are aware, Banville is adept at evoking the atmosphere of the time and place where he sets his stories. Overcast, chilly, and misty Dublin emerges as a character in the earlier books as surely as Dr. Quirke himself. And, in April in Spain, Banville creates a vivid image of the seaside town of San Sebastián. You’ll feel the sun beating down, the sudden showers, the glories of the Atlantic coast. And you’ll sense the tension between the Spanish under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco and the Basque people of the region where the town is located.

April in Spain (Quirke #8) by John Banville (2022) 320 pages ★★★★★ 

Waterfront view on San Sebastian, Spain, around 1960, the setting for this historical murder mystery
A waterfront view of San Sebastian, Spain, around the time Dr. Quirke and his wife vacation there in the novel. Image: San Sebastian

The depths of human depravity

It’s easy to understand how Banville wins literary prizes and sells so many of his historical murder mysteries. His prose is flawless, and the psychological insights he brings to each of his characters reflect a deep understanding of the human condition. Utterly corrupt government officials. A gay hitman. The complicated Dr. Quirke himself. His daughter, who learned he was her father only as an adult. And victims of childhood sexual abuse. In April in Spain, Banville plumbs the depth of the human mystery.

One surprise after another

April in Spain is full of surprises for Benjamin Black fans. The novel opens in London with an introduction to a sociopathic gay hitman who clearly has a central role to play in the story that follows. (We revisit his life from time to time in chapters inserted among those centering on the other major characters.) The second surprise—assuming we overlook the fact that Quirke is now in Spain—is that the good doctor is married for a second time. Evelyn Blake is an Austrian Jew, a psychiatrist from Vienna, of all places. “So far, they couldn’t get enough of each other.” And she is managing to tolerate Quirke’s grumpiness in the understanding that he’ll keep his drinking under control.

Then comes the biggest surprise of all. As he and Evelyn are strolling on the beach, he catches a glimpse of a young woman he’s certain he’d known in Dublin. And therein lies the tale, since she had been dead and buried four years ago, murdered by her brother.

About the author

Photo of John Banville in 2019, author of this historical murder mystery
John Banville in 2019. Image: Wikipedia

John Banville is widely considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is best known as a writer of literary fiction for which he has won the Booker Prize and numerous other prestigious awards. In addition to seven novels of suspense he wrote under the pseudonym Benjamin Black and the eighth Quirke book, he has published twenty novels under his own name beginning in 1971. He has also authored numerous short stories, book reviews, and plays.

Banville was born in southeast Ireland. He received a secondary education but never attended university. Banville has four children, including two sons and two daughters. He lives in Dublin.

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