Magazine article The Spectator

Dublin's Dark Heart

Magazine article The Spectator

Dublin's Dark Heart

Article excerpt

Holy Orders by Benjamin Black Mantle, £16.99, pp. 256, ISBN 9781447202189 It's always a little disconcerting for the rest of us when literary novelists turn to crime.

Have they become different writers? John Banville, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize with The Sea, has published seven crime thrillers. He writes as Benjamin Black.

He certainly looks different - Black has a matching author photo that shows a sinister figure resembling a melancholy Mafia hitman with half his face in shadow.

Quirke, Black's series protagonist, is a Dublin pathologist in the 1950s, not that there's a great deal of medical detail in the novels. He refers to himself as 'a consultant to the dead' and, like Colin Dexter's Morse, is known only by his surname. He has a taste for handmade shoes. He is an alcoholic with misanthropic tendencies. He is attractive to women. His family life is not so much dysfunctional as rampantly gothic, with tendrils of illegitimacy, adultery, cruelty, confusions about parentage and plain old-fashioned nastiness shooting off in all directions.

The first crime novel, Christine Falls, came out in 2006. According to Banville, it was the unexpected by-product of a script for a TV series that was never made. (Ironically the story will now form the first part of a BBC1 mini series about Quirke that is scheduled for later this year. ) Set in Dublin and Boston, Massachusetts, it's about a woman who ends up in Quirke's morgue and the fate (and paternity) of the child to whom she has just given birth. Quirke's relations are implicated, particularly his coffin-faced foster brother Mal. The unhappy family includes Mal's American wife, Sarah, once Quirke's lover;

Mal's daughter, the unfortunate Phoebe, who seems to spend her life being drawn into murder cases and whose own paternity is in doubt; and Mal's father, chief justice of Ireland and papal count - who turns out to be the former employer of the dead woman.

The novel set out what has proved to be the template for the series. At the heart of it is Quirke, an unholy blend of booze, gloom and animal appetites. His family connections usually form part of the plot, which gives the books a quasi-incestuous feel. A common source of the villainy, direct or indirect, is the Roman Catholic Church, for which Quirke nurses an inveterate hatred because of its institutional corruption and the damage it wreaked on him as a sensitive schoolboy.

This is not a series that will be on the open access shelves of the Vatican library. …

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