Crime Corner

The quirkish Dr. Quirke

John Banville, the creator of the cranky and quirky pathologist Dr. Quirke, is a prolific author, whose writings have earned him consideration for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Brought to you by Jerry Holt

Welcome to the travel issue—which also coincides with the annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day! Are you thinking what I’m thinking? IRELAND! My two trips there were both filled with wonder, especially since one took me there on Bloomsday (June 2), where the entire country celebrates the novel Ulysses by James Joyce.

But, of course, there is a host of great Irish writers—and in these days when it’s so much harder to board a plane, I find myself doing my trips to Ireland between the pages of the works of those writers. A current favorite is the remarkable John Banville, very much alive and very prolific. His numerous “straight” novels have won him consideration for the Nobel Prize—and his mystery fiction, usually published under the name Benjamin Black, has resulted in an international following anxious for new adventures of Banville’s irascible creation Quirke, a physically ungainly, cranky, and often drunk pathologist, who just can’t keep from sticking his curious nose into whatever rainy Dublin mystery happens to be at hand.

The Quirke books—there are eight of them now—take place in the 1950s, in an Ireland very much under the thumb of the Roman Catholic Church. Banville is a writer of considerable skill, especially masterful in creating an atmosphere the reader can just about touch. Banville’s often rainy Dublin, in look and feel, is very similar to my own favorite city—Bergen. Especially with the books set in winter, the palpable feel of the winding streets around Trinity College, fogged and mysterious, and the cozy attraction of the Temple Bar area makes the city a living character in these stories, just as Bergen is a living character in the novels of Gunnar Staalesen.

Thus, it is somewhat surprising that half of Banville’s latest Quirke story, April in Spain, takes place in San Sebastian, on the Spanish Coast. Quirke has remarried and taken his bride, the lovely and formidable Evelyn, off for some recreation. Quirke, ever the curmudgeon, just can’t seem to relax—especially after one night in a bar he thinks he hears the voice of a woman known to him but presumed to be dead for years. If Quirke can stay sober for a few days, here is a mystery that begs to be investigated.

And investigate Quirke does, bringing the story home to Dublin. April Latimer, a friend of Quirke’s grown daughter Phoebe, went missing and was presumed dead in the 2008 Quirke novel Elegy for April. In fact, an immediate result of finishing the current novel will be a compulsion on the part of the reader to go back and read (or reread) the former one. Elegy for April is a remarkable work. It’s a frightening mashup of tangled family relationships, murder, and—yes—incest, which at book’s end does indeed leave April unaccounted for. And this is the question that leads Quirke to his investigation in Spain.

Soon enough daughter Phoebe, a running character in the series and a wonderfully resourceful one, will join Quirke in San Sebastian, along with the reticent detective St. John Strafford, who turns up fresh from his introduction in Banville’s 2020 novel Snow and certainly bound for his own series. Since along the way Banville has also let us know that a hired killer has been dispatched to San Sebastian by someone—I shall say no more—who wants April to stay dead, the stage is set for a big finish, and Banville provides one that will linger darkly. April in Spain is not, in other words, bedtime reading— because you won’t sleep until you finish it.

So utterly right for a television series or a feature film is the Quirke character that I remain surprised that the 2014 BBC attempt didn’t fare well. Quirke was played by the excellent Gabriel Byrne, and one of the writers on the three-part series was none other than the esteemed Irish playwright Conor McPherson. But something just didn’t click. I wonder what might have happened if the series had taken to the streets more, for this is where the truly addictive joy of Banville’s prose lies. Consider this passage from Elegy for April—the point of view is Quirke’s daughter Phoebe:

“She glanced away, toward the fireplace … She had a sense of the winter night outside hung with mist, the streetlights weakly aglow, and the nearby river sliding silently alone, between its banks, shining, secret, and black.”

That prose, more cinematic that cinema itself, has to be the basis for any screen rendering of the Quirke series. The visual adaptation has to throb with that intensity. Here is another example of the level to which Banville elevates the writing of his chosen genre—this one from Quirke’s eyes as he muses about being a man who, as a pathologist, has made a career out of traversing among the dead:

“Dimly for a moment he seemed to catch the babbling voices of all of his dead. How many corpses had passed under his hand, how many bodies had he cut up, in his time? I should have done something else, been something else, he thought—but what? ‘A racing driver, maybe,’ he said aloud, and heard his own sad laugher echo along the empty street.”

You can’t buy writing like that. It is my custom to read to my dearest wife, Lucrecia, every night, and we love the Quirke novels especially for this ritual. Even though—or perhaps because—both of us are writers, we often ask each other of Banville: “How does he DO that?” If your next literary journey involves Irish prose, I can guarantee you that you will find John Banville—or Benjam

This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.