Faber & Faber, £14.99
Review by Rosemary Goring
The title of John Banville’s latest foray into crime sounds more like a romance than his usual exploration of political and institutional corruption. But there’s no need to fear he has gone soft – or at least, not entirely. Billed as the next in his new series featuring the Anglo-Irish Detective Inspector St John Strafford, April in Spain opens instead in the company of Banville’s morose and troubled pathologist, Quirke.
The presiding presence in Banville’s first crime series, which was written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black – a device he has since abandoned – Quirke is reluctantly on holiday in San Sebastian with his wife. His marriage to the Austrian psychiatrist Dr Evelyn Blake might come as a surprise to some readers, who doubtless thought the alcoholic, misanthropic and short-tempered Quirke was too consumed by demons to settle. It’s even more of a shock to him. Five years into this happy relationship – “he had been married before, but never like this; no, never like this” – he prays that he never loses her.
The pathologist’s usual stamping ground, of rain-sodden 1950s Dublin, is a more atmospheric backdrop for delving into the murkiest corners of Irish venality than sunny 1960s Spain. Yet Banville manages to convey both the pleasurable tedium of a holiday where there’s nothing to do but eat, drink and take to bed in the afternoon, and the potential for the sinister in a place as picturesque and seemingly benign.
St John – pronounced Sinjun – does not make an appearance until well into the book. By then it feels an age since his previous outing in Snow. In this sub-zero murder investigation, on the eve of Christmas, he was pitched into his own aristocratic and autocratic milieu as he solved the murder and mutilation of a priest. Some of the chill of that winter-bound tale clings to him still, since St John is not a demonstrative man. But he is attractive, which fact Quirke’s daughter Phoebe registers.
The Detective Inspector is summoned to Spain when Quirke believes he has spotted one of Phoebe’s old friends, a young woman whose brother, in a previous novel, confessed to murdering her. When he asks his daughter to come to Spain to confirm his suspicions, she is dispatched with the protective detective in tow.
Quirke’s aimless holiday is interleaved with the first-person ruminations of a revolting character called Terry Tice. An orphan, whose Dublin upbringing was unspeakable, he is a stock figure of gangland horror, familiar with the Krays and their kind. In Banville’s hands, he is pitiful and terrifying. Swaggering around town in his too-short, crisply creased fawn trousers, he occasionally feels vestigial remorse for his actions. The sort of figure found in movies, he mutters “heh heh”, like a cartoon villain, which in some respects he is. A hired assassin, he finds his path taking him from London to Dublin, then to San Sebastian.
Banville enjoys describing Quirke’s placid, unperturbable wife: “his large, soft-eyed, mystifying wife, as loving and lightsome as ever”. Wholly tolerant of her husband’s ill-humours, she has a background to match the misery of his orphaned childhood. Where Quirke was traumatised by his early years, her family was wiped out in the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped. Further tragedy was to follow. Thus, with the arrival of Terry Tice, the players are in place: three wounded individuals, drawn together by accident, yet as if preordained.
As always with Banville, plot is less important than prose. The drama in his crime fiction, and this one in particular, is operatic. It has an almost mythological dimension, as implacable forces shape human affairs. While St John might have grounds for feeling short-changed with the scant lines devoted to him, the story is satisfyingly rich, bringing together Quirke’s family, and their past and possible future. Equally if not more importantly, April in Spain turns the spotlight on 1960s Dublin. Although part of the pleasure of Banville’s detective stories lies in their understated evocation of the recent past, his emphasis is on showing that the upper echelons of government and society were mired in hypocrisy, corruption and violence. In that sense, the plot feels simultaneously timeless and modern.