I first came across John Banville sometime in the mid-1970s when his novel Kepler came out. I bought the hardback, loved it (I reviewed a subsequent reprint of the book), and since then I have read just about everything he has written. There are few contemporary writers I keep up with as assiduously I do Banville (Graham Swift and William Boyd come to mind), but his work is incredibly various. The historical ones, (Kepler, Doctor Copernicus), were vivid and convincing; his novel based on Anthony Blunt, The Untouchable, is sharp and engaging; but others, such as his Booker Prize winner, The Sea, seem to me so etiolated that you have to fight your way through a fog of allusive prose to find out what didn’t happen.
I have seen Banville speak a couple of times, once specifically on Georges Simenon. I can’t think of two more different writers than the author of The Sea and the author of Maigret, and yet there was an obvious connection between the two. So it was no great surprise that he started writing crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, starting with Christine Falls in 2006. The Black novels are hardly Simenonesque, the prose, while tighter than some of his John Banville novels, is still a lot looser, more elaborate, than you are likely to find in Simenon. But in these novels plot is to the fore, and they are indeed good plot-driven stories.
Most, though by no means all, of the Benjamin Black novels feature an alcoholic Dublin pathologist, Quirke. And they are interconnected in the way that they use the crime as a way of digging into the abusive control of 1950s Dublin society by the Catholic Church, and the corruption of the political class sheltering behind the power of the Church. This is an impoverished, grey Dublin where the physical and sexual abuse of children in Church-run orphanages and schools is an accepted part of life. There are few if any characters in the Benjamin Black novels who are not in some way damaged by the very society they inhabit.
Banville made no secret that he and Benjamin Black were one and the same. The books tended to declare on the cover: By John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. It was rather like the difference between Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks: the two names allowed the author to take different liberties with their writing.
Then, a year ago, a new John Banville novel appeared: Snow. And it was a crime novel, indeed it was a very distinctive Benjamin Black novel, yet the name Black appeared nowhere on it. It was a crime novel set in 1950s Ireland, and though there is a new central character, the rather austere and lonely protestant, Detective Inspector Strafford, Quirke does get a passing mention. And it is a novel that features corruption in high places, and the malign influence of the Church.
Now there is what is advertised as a new Strafford novel, April in Spain. Only Strafford doesn’t even appear until more than half way through the book, and even then mostly plays a supporting role. The central character is Quirke, and the story itself is a direct sequel, set four years later, to the third of the Benjamin Black Quirke novels, Elegy for April (2011). In that earlier novel, incest within the family of a prominent government minister results in a boy admitting to murdering his sister, April, and then committing suicide. Now, reluctantly on holiday in Spain with his new wife, Quirke encounters a doctor at the local hospital and recognizes her as April.
Quirke immediately telephones his daughter, Phoebe, who had been a friend of April’s. Phoebe tells the Dublin police, who arrange that Detective Inspector Strafford should travel out to Spain with her to confirm the identification, and to try to discover why her brother had confessed to her murder. But Phoebe also tells April’s uncle, the cabinet minister, which is why a one-time associate of the Kray twins is also heading out to Spain with a gun.
This is not a novel in which mysteries are solved, which I suppose brings it closer to earlier John Banville novels. But truths are uncovered, political repercussions are felt, and there are tragedies. It is a gripping novel, I read it in a day which is something I haven’t done much of recently.
Curiously, I notice that the John Banville Bibliography on Wikipedia does not list Snow, and counts April in Spain as a Benjamin Black novel, which it explicitly is not. Clearly some people are still confused by the identities of Banville and Black.