Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Elegy for April’ by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

Last year I read John Banville’s latest novel, April in Spain, a marvellous crime-inspired romp set in San Sebastian in the 1950s.

But while I recognised the connections with his Quirke Dublin series penned under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and his magnificent locked room mystery Snow, I failed to see that it was basically a follow-up to his novel Elegy for April, published more than a decade ago.

I only discovered this fact when browsing in my local second-hand book warehouse and Elegy for April was staring at me on the shelves! So it came home with me (in exchange for $9.90) and I’ve spent the best part of the last week reading it and eking out the story for as long as possible because I was enjoying it so much.

A woman vanishes

Set in Dublin in the 1950s, this richly atmospheric tale focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a junior doctor, April Latimer, and explores what might have happened to her.

Was she murdered, or did she stage her own disappearance? And regardless of the scenario, what caused her to vanish? There’s no body to be found, no sign of struggle or foul play.

Her family — a stuck-up mother, a pretentious brother and an uncle who is a government minister — don’t seem to care, arguing that April had long chosen to disassociate herself from her family for personal reasons and she’s probably just gone off with a man or escaped for a holiday in the sun.

But her circle of friends are concerned because it is unlike April to not attend their drinking sessions and get-togethers without telling them first. Her friend Phoebe Griffin is so worried she asks her father, the pathologist Quirke, to help determine what might have happened.

Genre busting novel

This novel isn’t a police procedural, nor is it a traditional detective story. It’s Banville’s own take on crime but it’s by no means a conventional crime novel per se. The reader can’t even be sure that a crime has taken place. There’s certainly no neat resolution, with all the loose stories lines tied up at the end.

But Elegy for April is a wonderfully evocative read and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in characterisation. It is peopled with a cast of distinctly colourful characters, including the star of the show, Quirke, whose orphaned childhood and complex, and often strained, family relationships have shaped his outlook on life and which provide a rich back story for Banville to explore.

When the book opens, for instance, we discover that Quirke is just finishing a stint at St John of the Cross, a “refuge for addicts of all kinds”, because of his penchant for booze. Throughout the novel, he wrestles with his newfound sobriety, convincing himself that one or two drinks won’t hurt — often with disastrous, and occasionally, hilarious results.

And while he’s adjusting to life as a teetotaler, he’s also adjusting to life as a father, for when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth, he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, who has only recently learned of the truth. The pair are trying out their newfound father-daughter relationship with tender but laboured efforts.

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

The story paints a vivid portrait of 1950s Dublin — the streets, the pubs, the landmarks — and society’s moral stance on such things as inter-racial relationships (was April Latimer, for instance, having relations with a black Nigerian man?), abortion and single women.

And while it’s a serious story about a potential murder, it’s also incredibly funny in places. Quirke, for instance, buys a car — a very expensive and rare Alvis TC108 Super Graber Coupe, “one of only three manufactured so far” (Wikipedia picture) — even though he does not know how to drive and doesn’t have a licence. His scenes behind the wheel are hilarious.

At the corner of Clare Street, a boy with a schoolbag on his back stepped off the pavement into the street. When he heard the blare of the horn he stopped in surprise and turned and watched with what seemed mild curiosity as the sleek black car bore down on him with its nose low to the ground and its tyres smoking and the two men gaping at him from behind the windscreen, one of them grimacing with the effort of braking and the other with a hand to his head. ‘God almighty, Quirke!’ Malachy cried, as Quirke wrenched the steering wheel violently to the right and back again.

Quirke looked in the mirror. The boy was still standing in the middle of the road, shouting something after them. ‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘it wouldn’t do to run one of them down. They’re probably all counted in these parts.’

And as ever with a Banville novel, the prose is beautiful and dotted with highly original similies throughout.

Quirke, for instance, standing in his long black coat and black hat resembles a “blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning”; a stage actress with whom Quirke has a fling has vivid red lips “sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”; while a secret between lovers that is never discussed but always remains between them is described as “like a light shining uncertainly afar in a dark wood”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Elegy for April and look forward to reading more in this Quirke series as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Prague Nights’ by Benjamin Black

Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2017.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym Irish writer John Banville uses when he pens crime novels (though he has abandoned that recently with the publication of his most recent cosy crime novels, Snow and April in Spain).

But Prague Nights, set in 1599, is not so much a crime novel but a political intrigue set in the shadowy world of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the eccentric Rudolf II.

Atmospheric murder mystery

This deeply atmospheric tale begins with the narrator, Christian Stern, a 25-year-old doctor and travelling scholar from Bavaria, arriving in Prague one snowy evening. He is drunk and a bit lost when he stumbles upon the body of a young woman lying in the shadow of the castle wall. She’s wearing a glamourous velvet gown with a large gold medallion around her neck, suggesting she comes from wealth, and her throat has been slashed.

He reports her death to the nearest sentry guards and is immediately assumed to be the culprit. He’s thrown into prison and looks set to be put to death for a crime he did not commit. But fate intervenes in the form of His Majesty who has had a dream about a saviour arriving from the west.

‘From your name—Christian Stern—it seems that you must be that God-sent star, for how else would we interpret such a happy confluence, hmm?’

He is told that the woman, Magdalena Kroll, is the daughter of the Emperor’s doctor and is asked to investigate the crime. It is during his enquiries that he discovers she was also the Emperor’s secret lover.

As Stern moves within the court’s circles, looking for motives and trying to determine how he should proceed, he is bewitched by Caterina Sardo — “His Majesty’s concubine and mother of his ill-gotten bastards” — and becomes her lover. This unknowingly puts him in a compromised position, for in Rudolf II’s world it’s difficult to know who to trust and who to avoid. There’s a power struggle going on and Stern risks being caught in the middle.

Later, when a second body — a man believed to have been romantically involved with Magdalena —  is found floating in the river, with his eyes gouged out and terrible rope burns on his neck, it appears that someone might have taken the law into their own hands. Stern soon realises his investigation is at risk of being derailed because too many powerful people have a stakehold in the outcome. What he does next could put his own life in grave danger.

Not a conventional crime tale

Prague Nights isn’t a conventional crime story. There’s not much of a plot other than to follow one hapless naive man’s attempt to find out how Magdalena was murdered.

I’d argue this story is actually historical fiction, perhaps even literary fiction, because it is character-led, features a wonderfully evocative setting and the dense, detailed prose is ripe with Banville-esque descriptions (he loves to tell us about the clothes people are wearing in rich, filmic detail, for instance), witty asides, metaphors and similes:

I felt, when he held me in his grip like this, that we were a pair of skaters halted motionless upon the thinnest of ice, our skates about to buckle beneath us, or the ice to crack, or one of us to fall and bring the other down with him.

What makes the story compelling is not so much discovering who murdered Magdalena but in wondering whether Stern is going to get away with his role in the Emperor’s inner circle given that he is sleeping with the Emperor’s mistress. There’s a whole series of untrustworthy characters with whom he has to deal, each one with an agenda to grind and each with the ability to thwart his investigation and expose his affair, providing a sinister, shadowy feel to the story.

This is an intriguing novel. It’s not fast-paced, so don’t expect a page-turner. Instead, this is a story to linger over, to soak up the language and the 16th Century Bohemian setting, and to experience the dangers that confront the main characer on almost every page.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

If I had to choose one word to describe John Banville‘s latest crime novel it would be this: fun.

April in Spain is historical crime at its best, the kind of story you can get lost in and enjoy to the full even if the crime itself is a bit of a let down.

Postwar tale

This evocative postwar tale stars Dublin pathologist Quirke, whom we have met in earlier novels published under Banville’s pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and Detective St. John Strafford who made his first appearance in last year’s Snow. (Note, you don’t need to be familiar with those novels, but it’s great fun for readers who are.)

It’s set in San Sebastián, on the northern coast of Spain’s mountainous Basque Country, which is famous for its forests, beaches, sparkling wine and seafood. Quirke is holidaying here somewhat reluctantly (he finds it difficult to relax) thanks to his wife, Evelyn, a straight-talking Austrian psychotherapist, who arranged the trip.

‘Northern Spain is southern Ireland,’ she said. ‘It rains all the time, everywhere is green, and everyone is Catholic. You will love it.’

One evening, enjoying a quiet drink in a bar in the Old Town, Quirke hears an Irish accent and wonders if he might know the woman to whom it belongs, but she’s sitting behind him and he can’t see her properly. When he does finally run into her under different circumstances a few days later he realises he does know her — or at least he thinks he does. The problem is she’s supposed to be dead, having been murdered by her brother following a sex scandal involving one of Ireland’s most distinguished political families many years earlier.

Quirke being Quirke can’t ignore the possibility that April Latimer, now going by the name Angela Lawless (note the same initials), is still alive, but how to prove it? That’s where Detective Strafford comes into the picture. He arrives in Spain, accompanied by Quirke’s adult daughter who was friends with April and will be able to help identify her.

The villain in the shadows

But lurking in the shadows is another visitor to San Sebastián with a keen interest in April Latimer. His name is Terry Tice and he’s an Irish-born East End gangster cut from a similar cloth to Reggie Kray.

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Maybe like wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid.

The narrative eventually brings all these characters together in a surprising end, although it’s a slim premise for a crime novel. The strength of April in Spain is really the way in which Banville tells his story and builds suspense via his beautifully crafted prose. I love how he comes at everything with a completely original eye, inventing his own metaphors and creating unique similies. It’s the kind of writing that dazzles without showing off and is utterly enjoyable to read.

A flustered woman, for instance, is described as being akin to a “bird floundering in a net as colourless as air”. An old guy behind the desk in a pub has “the look of a walrus, with fat shoulders and a sloped back and a tired moustache drooping at the tips”. A man becomes anxious so that the “collar of his shirt seems all of a sudden two or three sizes too small for him”, while a worried woman feels “like a swimmer on a high diving board whose nerve had failed”.

I particularly liked this description of something as simple as dust:

She blew the dust from the lid — how lovely dust could be, when it lay like that, like a smooth coating of fur, dull-mauve and almost too soft to touch.

He paints such delicious pictures with words that the story really comes alive in your mind.

San Sebastián travel diary

The first part of the book, as Quirke settles into holiday mode, is a delight. I went to San Sebastián in 2018 and it remains one of the most memorable (and beautiful) European destinations I’ve ever visited. I recognised so much of Banville’s descriptions, including his references to the local fizzy white wine known as txakoli — “That was one word Quirke was quick to learn how to pronounce: tchacholy” —  and the delicious skewered snacks known as pintxos, which Quirke describes as (rather unkindly) “a slightly fancier version of the dull old sandwich. He was against the idea of local specialities, which in his experience were all too local, and rarely special”.

In move to protect his “big Irish head”, Quirke is even dragged to the very same hat shop I bought a Panama hat in:

They found a hat shop not far from the hotel. It was called Casa Ponsol. A sign over the door announced with a proud flourish that it had been founded in 1838. It might have been an annexe to the Londres [his hotel]. Quirke felt intimidated.

The mood of the story isn’t as dark as you might expect. The banter between Quirke and his wife is particularly funny (the push and pull of their relationship is brilliantly evoked). And there’s a vein of gentle humour, often mocking, running throughout. Here’s an example. Quirke and Evelyn buy oysters in the local fish market but when they get back to their hotel room they realise they have nothing to open them with.

Now she came out of the bathroom. ‘Here is a nail scissors,’ she said. ‘That will do to open them with.’ And that was how Quirke ended up in hospital.

And here’s how Terry Tice describes his impression of the tourists he sees on the beach:

People looked so stupid here, the tourists especially, the fat women as pale as suet, the men with the cuffs of their trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchiefs on their heads to ward off the sun. Then there were the he-men, flexing their muscles, as if they all thought they were Johnny Weissmuller. As for swimming, that really was for chumps. Imagine floundering around up to your neck out there, with them all screaming around you, and throwing water in each other’s faces, or standing with their hands on their hips and that faraway look on their faces that told you they were taking a piss.

I suspect diehard readers of the crime genre might find this novel a little disappointing. But what it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in terrific characters — the people in this book are brilliant creations, each one distinct and well rounded, and Terry Tice is dastardly enough to become one of those strange evil villains you love to hate.

Yes, April in Spain is great fun. More, please.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sarah Schmidt, Setting, TBR40, Tinder Press, USA

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 336 pages; 2017.

When Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done came out in 2017 it generated a lot of book publicity. This was backed up by a slew of prize listings — including, for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and The Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Crime. It went on to win two key prizes in Schmidt’s native Australia: The ABIA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018 and the Mud Literary Award 2018.

Set in the US in the 19th century, it is based on a true story: the brutal murder, by axe, of a husband and his second wife in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden, the husband’s 32-year-old daughter, was convicted of the crime but acquitted.

This fictionalised account examines Lizzie’s possible culpability but does not provide any clear cut answers.

Different perspectives

The tale is told from various different perspectives in alternate chapters: Lizzie’s steady and responsible older sister Emma; the Borden’s hard-working Irish servant Bridget, who is saving up to return home; an enigmatic and violent stranger called Benjamin, whom may (or may not) have been hired to commit a crime against Mr Borden; and Lizzie herself.

The narrative, which is divided into three parts, jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, so some chapters are set on the day of the murder — 4 August 1892 — while others are set the day before or the day after. Section three opens almost 13 years later, before spooling back to talk about the day of the funerals.

This backwards and forwards movement gives the reader the opportunity to see how actions can be pre-planned, how things said in the past can take on different meanings in the present, and helps paint a picture of a small but complex family rife with petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices.

Failed to engage 

But I had problems with this book. I just could not engage with any of the characters. I felt like I was always one step removed from them, or that I was watching their movements through a window, never able to quite make them out through the smears on the glass.

I think this was partly to do with the fact that the voices of the characters are too similar. They almost blended into one, so I couldn’t really distinguish them. Only Bridget, with her use of  “ya” and working class English, sounded slightly different to the others.

Australian edition

And the story felt too drawn out. I wanted to hear more about the conviction and the trial, but these are only mentioned in passing right near the end, and I’m none the wiser as to why Lizzie was arrested in the first place, much less why she was acquitted by a jury.

(That said, there’s enough meat here to figure out her motivations for potentially carrying out the brutal deed.)

On a more positive note, I liked Schmidt’s prose style and her ability to paint vivid pictures using fragmentary sentences and original adverbs (“saliva-wet baby hands”, “a red-fox vixen scream”, “her stale-wood dressing table”). There’s a heavy emphasis on odours (the smell of rotting pears, rotted meat), on sounds, on the wetness of things — and both Lizzie and Benjamin seem obsessed with licking whatever they can see. This brings scenes to life, nicely aided by authentic sounding dialogue.

And there are recurring motifs — pigeons, pears, mutton and vomit — that ties everything together.

But on the whole See What I Have Done just didn’t do it for me.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2019; my 6th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 25th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in hardcover not long after it had been released because there was such a “buzz” about it. Plus, the hardcover was a thing of beauty, with orange-edged paper and an attractive cover image. But then it sat on my shelf unread and, in fact, it’s still there — in London. The copy I actually read was the Australian edition, large-format paperback, which I borrowed from Fremantle Library last week.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hannah Kent, historical fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial-rites

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 378 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I may possibly be the last person in the world to read Hannah Kent’s extraordinary debut novel, Burial Rites, which has been lauded far and wide and nominated for almost every prize going since publication last year.

It is one of those rare Australian novels that has achieved international acclaim — and with good reason. This is a universal tale of what it is like to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with no recourse to proper justice, and it tells the story in such a frank and interesting way that it is difficult to put down. I read it in a matter of days.

A fictionalised true story

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is based on a true story, as the author explains in her note at the end: “Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.” Interspersed with real letters and court documents, the narrative fictionalises the events leading up to the murders and beyond.

When the book opens we meet Agnes almost a year after she has been sentenced to death by beheading.  She has been sent to the north to work her final months on a farm owned by the District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust.

Allowed access to a spiritual adviser to prepare her for “her meeting with Our Lord”, she requests that Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, a young priest she met in passing years earlier, take on this role. But it is a task he is ill-equipped to handle.

Kent sets up her story nicely with a triumvirate of characters —  a convicted killer, a family that doesn’t trust her, and a man of religion — but what happens next isn’t really what you might expect.

During her time on the farm, Agnes changes: she grows in confidence, is less fearful of the future and begins to remember incidents from her past, which are told flashback style (in the first person). But she also has a profound effect on the people with whom she must now live and work among — they begin to see her in a new light, particularly when she tentatively opens up and tells her sometimes shocking, always surprising version of events.

Effortless read

What I loved most about Kent’s story is the effortless way it is told. Her prose style is clean and compelling, although the language — particularly the idioms and some of the dialogue — does occasionally feel too contemporary for the 19th century.

But the way in which the narrative builds and switches between third person (for the District Officer’s family and the reverend) and first person (for Agnes) is one of the book’s great strengths. Not only does it build momentum and provide insights into all of the characters thoughts, it gives the author an effective vehicle for dramatising what happened on the fateful night through the eyes of the person charged with the crime.

Perhaps the only real problem I had with this novel (and I suspect this is unique to me) is that I felt like I’d read it all before — it did not feel as fresh or as original as other reviewers have stated. But I suspect that’s because I’ve spent the best part of 10 years working my way through Arnuldur Indridason’s Reykjavik series. While his novels are set in Iceland in contemporary times, many of them focus on historical crimes, and they’re not dissimilar to Agnes’ situation.

That said Burial Rites is a great read — a proper page-turner with believable characters, a compelling plot that is deftly handled, and a narrative that “zips along” (as a 2011 Booker judge might want to say). It is an incredibly assured debut and it will be interesting to see what Kent comes up with next because for sheer audaciousness — and attention grabbing marketability — this one is going to be hard to top.