Luck of the Irish continues to run out in latest Quirke tale

Fiction: "Elegy for April," by Benjamin Black. Holt, $25.

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Quirke comes by his name honestly. A hulking, sorrowful fellow with a drinking problem and an unresolved relationship with his adult daughter, Phoebe, this antihero is a welter of contradictions wrapped in a huge overcoat.

He needs warm clothes, living in foggy, damp Dublin of the 1950s where the winter atmosphere is thicker than the head on a Guinness Stout.

Gripped in the harsh morality of the powerful Catholic Church and the entrenched hypocrisy of Irish politics, this city is a hellish, unforgiving place with just two exits -- the United States or the bottle.

Quirke was tempted by the former, but embraces the latter. As this third installment of Benjamin Black's crime series opens, the medical examiner at a Dublin hospital has been drying out at church-run facility following a mighty Christmas bender.

Now he's trying to pick up the few sad pieces that are left of his life when a concerned Phoebe tells him her friend April Latimer is missing.

"For one so young (early 20s), Phoebe had known a disproportion of misfortune in her life -- betrayal, rape, violent deaths -- and how would she not fear the worst?"

This Dublin town does get a little rough.

Particularly irksome is the inconvenient truth that she had lived with Quirke's stepbrother Malachy as his daughter for years. Now, awkwardly united, father and daughter are still uncomfortable with that bizarre fact.

John Banville, the highly regarded Irish "literary" novelist is also playing the identity jumble, slumming in the crime genre as Mr. Black. He says it takes him years to write such novels as "The Sea" and "The Infinities," but he dashes off these mystery novels in a few months.

Like its predecessors "Christine Falls" and "The Silver Swan," Mr. Black/Banville's new tale of misdeeds is powerfully written, laced with lyrical visual imagery about a distant Ireland still getting used to the 20th century and peopled with sharply drawn characters.

The book's full of the small details of sights, smells and sounds, the kind of details that are a fine novelist's finest tools.

It's all great stuff for readers, but since it's really Mr. Banville who's wielding the pen, we expect an original story. Instead we get another side of institutional corruption, repressive beliefs and the secret lives of families where "hero" fathers are frauds like Quirke, or worse.

Underneath that evocative mantle of Dublin mist is a predictable landscape where evil is the accepted norm and it's become familiar territory for Mr. Black/Banville.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com . Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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