Saturday, July 25, 2015


In ELEGY FOR APRIL, Benjamin Black presents us with a noir mystery very much in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP. The protagonist, Quirke, a troubled coroner who drinks way too much and then does things he regrets later, confronts a powerful family, the Latimers, which has some extremely nasty secrets that it wants to keep secret. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was another troubled guy with a fondness for booze and a desire to set wrong things right. The rich and powerful family Marlowe confronts has a shameful sexual secret, and the Latimers, well, their secret is shameful too.

The nighttime Los Angeles Marlowe wanders through is sinister and dark. And of course the Dublin that Quirke wanders through in a kind of existential fugue and fug is sinister and foreboding and melancholy and…..foggy. I never knew that Dublin was foggy in February, but apparently it is, or can be. And of course the fog is a metaphor for the difficulty one faces when searching for the truth.

Everyone in the benighted city, circa sometime in the 1950’s, is lost in the awful fog: “the city seemed bewildered, like a man whose sight has suddenly failed.” And “Motorcars with their headlights on loomed like giant insects, trailing milky dribbles of exhaust smoke from their rear ends.” And finally, “the sun somewhere was trying to shine, its weak glow making a sallow, urinous stain on the fog.” A talent for simile, has this Benjamin Black, which is a pen name the literary novelist John Banville uses when he is writing noir.

Quirke’s (we never learn his first name) daughter Phoebe is sure something bad has happened to April Latimer. April is a junior doctor at the local hospital where Quirke works as a pathologist—he’s told by his step brother Malachy that he is called (behind his broad back, as we learn that Quirke is an enormous man, a man still smarting from the wounds of his childhood as an orphan in an industrial school/orphanage) Doctor Death. Quirke loves Phoebe, even though he gave her up to be raised by Malachy and his wife when his wife Delia died giving birth to her.

At novel’s beginning, Quirke is in a drying out place, what we would call a rehab now, run by the Christian Brothers. He’s told by the house psychiatrist that “with some, such as yourself, it’s not so much the drink that’s addictive, but the escape it offers.” And ironically, the more Quirke drinks, the more he has to escape from: “had he the heart to recount it all again, the shambles that was his life—the calamitous losses of nerve, the moral laziness, the failures, the betrayals?”

And so Quirke checks out to help his daughter (and maybe escape all that exhausting self-scrutiny). Quirke longs to be a good father, and to do so he must escape the demons that drive him to drink and the drink itself. Black does a great job of showing us the glittering allure booze has for our grim hero: "Yes, a smoky dive somewhere, with a turf fire and dim men talking in the shadows, and a tumbler of Black Bush in his fist, that would be the thing."

So, another drunk hardboiled investigator, like Wallander of the Henning Mankell series, and Patrick Taylor, Ken Bruen’s noir PI (I wonder if, all these years later, Taylor is frequenting some of the same bars that Quirke does in the 50’s?), struggling against the forces of darkness both within and without. But it is not old hat, not the way Black does it, with the stark originality of his language, and with his deft portrayal of the desperate longing for connection both father and daughter feel.

The relationship between Quirke and Phoebe is touching without being silly or sentimental. Phoebe is just as lost as her old man, trying to make her own connection to the rest of mankind by hanging out with an apparently merry band of five, including April, Isabel Galloway (a young actress with whom Quirke gets romantically involved, which ends up, or course, being a bad idea) Patrick Ojukwu, a Nigerian medical student, and Jimmy Minor, a reporter on the city’s paper.

As Quirke and Phoebe try to crack the case, Phoebe learns that she may not have known these friends at all, at least not in the way she thought she did. Her trust, already forever compromised by the way Quirke gave her up (and by his not confessing to having done it until she was twenty years old), is further damaged by the secret allegiances, lies and infidelities she finds within the group. She holds herself accountable, taking herself to task because she “did not care too deeply to see into other people’s business, into other people’s hearts. In that, at least, she was her father’s daughter.”

But in order to find April, they must both look into the business and hearts of others. If Phoebe is anything, she is a good and loyal friend, and Quirke wants to be a good and loyal father. The problem with that is his melancholy and backward looking nature (are all Irish characters like this?). His friend, Inspector Hackett, or at least the man who offers Quirke friendship, which Quirke kind of accepts, in his closemouthed, bearish way, says: “That was Quirke, looking back longingly to a past where he had been so unhappy.”

Can Quirke win out over his demons? He is game to try, at least. He tells his stepbrother Malachy, “you have to hold on, Mal, this is all there is, this life. If something has gone out of it for you, it’s up to you to replace it.”

And Quirke tries to replace the love he has lost so many times with Isabel. “You could—I feel you could—save me. Save me from myself.” But the booze sings its siren song for Quirke, and by the halfway point of the novel he is drinking again. The longing he feels for the drink almost made me want to switch from beer to whiskey: “there is, he was thinking, something special about the way light congregates inside a whiskey bottle, the way it glows there, tawny and dense, as it does nowhere else: something almost sacramental.”

There are, of course, shocking family secrets to be uncovered, but it is the way that Quirke and Phoebe try to be a family that really made the novel work for me. She is a great heroine, terrified, but determined to see justice done. And alternating the point of view between her and her father gives a depth of perspective on both that is truly impressive.

So is justice eventually done? Is it ever? In Dublin, like everywhere else, the right thing has its place, but only in a contingent and tenuous way. But like Quirke says, this life is all there is. As for April, I will leave you to read this skillfully wrought bit of Irish noir to discover her fate.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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