Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 352 pages; 2023.
I was looking forward to John Banville’s latest historical crime novel, The Lock-Up, and did a little jump for joy when I saw it on the shelves of my local independent bookstore where I purchased it last weekend.
I adored the first two in the series — Snow (2020) and April in Spain (2021) — because Banville so expertly marries historical fiction with a dash of crime and loads of literary flair. The result? Intriguing atmospheric tales that are primarily character-driven (rather than plot-driven) and hugely fun to read.
Set in Dublin in the 1950s, the series — billed as “a Strafford and Quirke mystery” — stars Detective Inspector St. John Strafford and the Dublin-based pathologist Quirke. (Banville aficionados will know that Quirke has his own series, penned under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, which began with Christine Falls in 2006.)
Putting these two characters together in the same series is a feat of genius because the tension between them allows Banville to explore the prejudices in Irish society at the time (Quirke is Catholic; Strafford is Protestant). He can also use their different professional skills to build a crime-fighting duo akin to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
Six months after Spain
In this story, set six months after the last book, a young Jewish woman, Rosa Jacobs, is found gassed in her car, which is kept in a local lock-up (hence the book’s title). Everyone assumes she has killed herself, but when Quirke discovers evidence she was gagged, a murder investigation is set in motion.
This investigation, led by Strafford under the direction of his soon-to-be-retired Chief Inspector Hackett, struggles to uncover any immediate leads. Yet Rosa was outspoken and campaigned for contraception and abortion so it’s likely someone wanted to keep her quiet, but who?
The plot focuses mainly on Rosa’s links with Kesler, a wealthy German industrialist, who trains racehorses in County Wicklow, and his son. Kesler has business dealings in Israel and a journalist he knew there had recently been killed in a hit-and-run. Is this death connected to Rosa’s? And if so, how?
Not just crime
The Lock-Up isn’t strictly a police procedural, and the crime, especially the way it is linked to other events, stretches credulity a little. As ironic as it sounds, I’ve come to realise you don’t read Banville’s crime books for the crime component. You read them for the lush prose, his brilliant similies and his scene-setting. He’s especially adept at writing about weather, for instance, and in this book, set on the cusp of autumn, it is blowing a gale throughout.
Rather than focus primarily on the plot, Banville is more interested in fleshing out his characters, exploring the complexities of their lives and highlighting how the often unseen forces of religion and politics shape decisions and outcomes.
The historical elements are nicely done. The story is set in 1957 at a time when the Catholic Church ruled almost every facet of Irish life and where a phone call from the Bishop could end a career — or put paid to a well-earned police pension (as Hackett comes to fear when pressure is put on him to steer the investigation in a certain way).
The role of the Church in harbouring Nazis or helping them to escape also forms a shadowy backdrop. Indeed, in the first part of the novel, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, an Irish monk helps a Nazi gain safe passage by sheltering him in a monastery in the Alto Adige in Northern Italy. When the story then jumps forward by more than a decade, it feels disjointed, but everything falls into place by the time you get to the end.
It’s the interactions between Qurike and Strafford that make The Lock-Up such a compelling read because it’s the little jibes and subtle digs between them that reveal their personalities and prejudices.
Both men are deeply flawed characters and carry out extra-curricular activities that might raise eyebrows. Strafford lacks the backbone to ask if his wife, who has seemingly left him, is ever coming back but has the courage to ask Quirke’s adult daughter, Phoebe, out on a date; Quirke, newly bereaved (you will have to read April in Spain to find out why), is hitting the bottle one minute and hitting on women the next. To see these men fumble around, looking for ways to make meaningful human contact, to quell their loneliness and the stresses of the job, makes for an authentic read.
Of course, everything is nicely tied up at the end — but not in the ways you might think.
Finally, The Lock-Up can be read as a standalone, but I suspect the reading experience is all the richer if you have read the earlier novels. There are occasional throwback references to incidences and characters from the Quirke series of novels which, when you spot them, are delicious little treats. I imagine Banville has a lot of fun writing these books. I certainly have fun reading them.