The sixth in a series of Irish mystery novels resolves its ostensible mystery, but deeper mysteries remain.
The latest novel from Black (Vengeance, 2012, etc.) featuring the pathologist Quirke is not the place to start for those new to the series. Its plot relies heavily on characters from previous novels and developments that transpired within those, and it doesn’t sufficiently elaborate on Quirke’s relationships with his daughter, his girlfriend or even with the corpse whose discovery propels the narrative. Yet plot has always been less important than character, atmosphere and style within these novels from the alter ego of celebrated literary author John Banville (Ancient Light, 2012, etc.), who has typically been less concerned than most mystery writers and readers with whodunit than with mortality, identity, Ireland and other themes shared with his literary fiction. As a pathologist rather than an investigator, Quirke mulls the possibility that he had initially been drawn to his profession “in hope of penetrating nearer to the heart of the mystery,” but he’s since realized that “[e]very day he dealt with death and yet knew nothing about it, nothing.” While mortality permeates the novel, its real mystery is the mind of Quirke, one he no longer trusts as he suffers panic attacks and disorientation while trying to come to terms with a murder that puts the Catholic Church at odds with an exploitive, sensationalistic press. Oddly, neither the murder victim nor the mastermind behind the crime exerts much of a presence in the novel, which focuses more on the abuses Quirke suffered as a young Catholic and on the way the investigation forces him to revisit places in his memory that are as uncomfortable as they were formative. “[E]verything Quirke did, so he felt, was predetermined by laws laid down he did not know when, or how, or by what agency,” writes Black. “He was a mystery to himself, now more than ever.” For Black, the mystery of the human condition remains impenetrable.
The novel reads like a turning point in the series, for those who have read its predecessors, with resolution saved for subsequent volumes.