I came across Elegy for April last winter and my wonderful parents bought me the book for Christmas. The book is written by Benjamin Black, pen-name for writer John Banville, and displays all the great features of high-quality detective fiction, up to the point of being praised by fellow writer Martin Amis.
From Book Depository:
1950’s Ireland. As a deep, bewildering fog cloaks Dublin, a young woman is found to have vanished. When Phoebe Griffin, still haunted by the horrors of her past, is unable to discover news of her friend; Quirke, fresh from drying out in an institution, responds to his daughter’s request for help. But as Phoebe, Quirke and Inspector Hackett speak with those who knew April, they begin to realise that there may have been more behind the young woman’s discretion and secrecy than they could have imagined. And while Quirke finds himself distracted from his sobriety by a beautiful young actress, Phoebe watches helplessly as April’s family hush up her disappearance, terrified of a scandal; and all possible leads seem to dry up, bar one she cannot bear to contemplate …When Quirke eventually makes a disturbing discovery, he is finally able to begin unravelling the great, complex web of love, lies, jealousy and dark secrets that April spun her life from …
I did not realise this was one of the many works on the Quirke installment. Apparently, I like reading these series in any order but the one they were written on! But, for any reader out there who wishes to read Elegy for April before the other Quirke novels, there is no apparent reason why you should not: the characters are so round and fully developed that any information from previous works is not needed to follow the plot.
What first attracted me to the novel was the setting: Dublin is one of my favourite places in the world and being acknowledge with their troubled history, I thought it was the perfect place for a detective novel to take place. Religion, the English influence/threat, gender issues, racism, drinking and smoking, the pressure of living in a small country… everything fell into place for Benjamin Black. He plays with these issues and makes the most of them, exploring and denouncing at the same what the 1950’s population would have suffered. One remarkable feature that really helps to create the amazing environment of the novel is the drinking and smoking: maybe as 21st century citizen we cannot remember when smoking was allowed even in hospitals, or when drinking too much whiskey was not an issue but a symbol of a man’s strength. Against all odds, as a non-smoker and someone who enjoys drinking very seldom, I loved this. It was not intoxicating as to be disgusting, it was a feature of past times and past people, a part of their identity (and as a consequence, of our’s nowadays).
The characters are deep, complex and they are all a little bit troubled, making them more human and more reliable than one could imagine. Quirke is one interesting man, someone you would love to hang out with and, at the same time, someone you would not want as a friend. He is both a monster and a wonderful man, like any other person out there. He is a pathologist and a drunk in recovery, a father to a woman he does not connect with and who desperately needs his help. He is not a detective as such, but he detects as no police in the novel does.
Finally, the plot was easy to follow, with an elegant style, full of descriptions and a great, positive manipulation of language. I see why someone like Martin Amis would admire Black’s works.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in detective fiction and social criticism for 1950’s Ireland. I think we sometimes forget that detective fiction highlights society’s worst flaws. Some books keep this criticism only available for those who read between the lines, but Benjamin Black makes it clear that there were a lot of social issues to deal with 60 years ago and, sadly, some are still present, making it easier for us to connect with the case and the characters.