"Elegy for April" is the third crime story that the Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville has published under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. As with the earlier books "Christine Falls" and "The Silver Swan," the action here takes place in the Dublin of the 1950s and features a brilliant middle-aged pathologist named Quirke, a loner, a man haunted by his past and inclined not to happiness but to drink.
Quirke (he doesn't like to reveal his Christian name, a nod in the direction perhaps of Colin Dexter's marvelous Inspector Morse) is a stock character in some ways, an Irishman's Irishman, dark and brooding, granted depth by an impulsive and twisted inner life. Yes, Quirke is an alcoholic (like Henning Mankell's Wallander, like Ian Rankin's Rebus and numerous other fictional detectives), but Black takes us inside the addict's sweat and slide. "Elegy for April" opens with Quirke drying out in a grim clinic run by Christian brothers, but soon he's back in Dublin (one of the world's great cities to drink in, after all) and yearning for booze: "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."
The reader senses, early on, that "Elegy for April" will follow Quirke back into the alcoholic fog, even as he traces the mystery of what's happened to a young woman who's gone missing. The woman, April Latimer, is a friend of Quirke's daughter Phoebe, and Phoebe fears April may be dead. Quirke's quest quickly brings him into conflict with April's well-connected Dublin family, a crew that knows that power does what it wants, the law is where you buy it and has, to boot, an Irish republican legend for an ancestor. Quirke, persistent, enlists the aid of a policeman friend, the "genially piercing" Inspector Hackett, and the two of them keep pulling at the thread of the case.
The plot could scarcely by simpler, and the novel's climax, featuring an expensive Alvis sports car that Quirke buys and doesn't quite learn how to drive, feels a little contrived. Yet the writing has an elegance and nimbleness that surpass almost all other genre fiction. "The mist was laden with the doughy smells of yeast and hops from Guinness's brewery. It was the middle of the afternoon, and what there was of daylight had already begun to dim." Black evokes Dublin — which he knows inside out — with an almost bitter love, and his feeling for the city's class and religious divisions and its urgent, albeit repressed, sexual atmospheres helps his characters spring from the page: "Bill Latimer came into the room chuffing like a steam engine, his hand already out, smiling his broad, cold smile. He was large and heavy, not fat, with a wide, bony face, and thick, brown, wavy hair; he was much favored, it was said, by women voters."
The feel of "Elegy for April" and indeed the other Benjamin Black stories owes much to Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, great mystery writers of the period in which Banville has chosen to place his own excursions into genre. From Macdonald, Black takes a theme, "the poison of the past"; like Chandler, he's a poet of locale, preoccupied by weather and by light or its absence; and he resembles Simenon in that he's haunted by the tragic impossibility of one human being ever really knowing another. Other people — that's the true mystery story, as Phoebe reflects: "She felt more confused than ever. While she was sitting with him and he was talking to her, she had thought she understood, in some way beyond the actual words he had spoken, what he was saying, but now she had realized that she had understood nothing."
"Elegy for April" is filled with thematic gloom, yet the writing sparkles. "Grains of mica glittered in the granite of the steps; strange, these little secret gleamings, under the fog. A ripping whine started up in the saw-mill on the other side of the canal and she realized that what she had been smelling without knowing it was the scent of freshly cut timber." John Banville, writing as John Banville, is a deep-dish writer, always dazzling, sometimes overwrought; when adopting the Benjamin Black persona, he relaxes, though the results, stylistically speaking, are no less striking.
When English prose looks like it's dying, the critic Cyril Connolly once said, an Irishman comes along with something to revive it and demolish the clichés. "The heather was slippery under the slushy snow, and there were hidden rocks that they knocked their ankles on and loose stones on which they slipped and slid," writes Black toward the end of this moody thriller. Those "hidden rocks" and the idea (so central to crime fiction) that we bumble through the fog of life without ever getting it at all do indeed recall Simenon at his most rueful, but the sounds of this book echo down from James Joyce and Flann O'Brien.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun