Holy Orders by Benjamin Black.
Christine Falls, the 2008 debut novel by Irish novelist John Banville’s noir alter ego Benjamin Black, was a revelation, an almost giddy pleasure for anyone interested in Irish and noir fiction, and where they all too rarely intersect.
Set in the late ‘50s in rainy Dublin, Christine introduced us to the odd, inward-turning pathologist Quirke (no first name, ever), his cop pal Inspector Hackett and a locale as full of bad death and shadows and mystery as Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. With his troubles, hard back story, twisted family history and drinking problem, Quirke was as wonderful and singular a noir creation as any in recent memory, and the plot – murder, power, corruption within the Catholic church, secrets, money and sex on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean – had the sort of momentum and finesse that made one think that Banville had been doing this kind of stuff all his life. Widely (and deservedly) praised, Christine brought with it the promise of years and years of dark pleasures to come.
And then it all fell apart. Yep. Just that fast. Banville/Black has written four more Quirke novels – Vengeance, The Silver Swan, A Death In Summer and Elegy for April – and I have read them all with a growing sense that the guy pretty much peaked the first time around. Not that I remember much about them, which is just the problem: all of these books were well-nigh completely forgettable, and read like Banville was either unwilling or unable to add anything to the formula and setting he had created with Christine.
I would love to say that the new Holy Orders is a return to form, but it isn’t. Oh, it’s marginally better than the last three Quirke novels, but that’s truly damning with faint praise. While not a disaster, Holy again makes one wonder what happened to Banville’s ability to make Quirke and his surroundings (Dublin during the Cold War, although hardly anything that happens outside of Ireland is even mentioned) breathe, or to inject anything interesting into one of the series’ main subplots, Quirke’s strained relationship with his daughter Phoebe.
There is, of course, another murder: Jimmy Minor, a local hard-charging (is there any other kind, with books like this?) newspaper reporter, and a friend of Phoebe’s, is fished out of a Dublin canal. He’s been severely beaten, and of course Quirke and Hackett are on the case. And of course the case involves the dark recesses of the Catholic Church in the person of irascible Father Honan – as well as another Irish character right out of central casting, a grubby but powerful tinker chieftain named Packie. We also get Jimmy’s mysterious sister Sally (over from London, with a gun in her purse), a lusty tinker woman (bet you didn’t see that coming) and a few (again, right from central casting) newspaper types.
And . . . that’s it. Just about. Oh, we also get some stuff about Quirke’s declining mental condition (exhaustion, seeing things and so on), some halting attraction between Sally and Phoebe, and of course a Big Revelation about how poor old Jimmy ended up beat all to hell in the river – which you can see coming about three miles away. It’s pretty much connect-the-dots mystery writing with plenty of clichés about Ireland (nasty priests, scary tinkers – the only thing we’re missing here is a freaking leprechaun doing a freaking jig) guiding us along the way.
You sense that Banville/Black just doesn’t seem invested in good storytelling any more. At one point, for example, Hackett tells Quirke something about the case that all but screams for a follow up . . . which never comes. Nothing. Nada. And the ending is both easy to anticipate and completely nonsensical, simply because a character that we’ve been repeatedly told is either in the west of Ireland or on his way to do missionary work in Africa is somehow hearing confessions in a Dublin church, right about the time it’s convenient to draw the whole business to a close and send the book off to the printers.
If all this sounds a little bitter, well, you might be right. The Quirke series started out with such promise and now, five books later, it’s come to this: stock Irish characters, massive holes in the plot, no real character development for Quirke, Phoebe, Hackett or anyone else, revelations that anyone with a brain could have spotted long before they arrive, and a sense that Banville/Black has grown bored of the whole thing.
It’s not that he’s not a marvelous writer, because he is, and you can’t take that away from him: there is true beauty in some of the descriptions of Dublin and the interior lives of some of the characters. One chapter, for example, is a masterful mini-portrayal of a relationship that is full of love but also (as both parties well know, and cannot find a way to articulate) doomed. At moments like this, we know we are in the presence of a wizard of language and feeling. And then the chapter ends and we’re back on the trail of Jimmy Minor’s killer, and it’s obvious that such moments of genius have been crowded out and made unimportant by all of the novel’s shortcomings.