During my month long Artist Date in Ireland this summer I became curious about their bestseller’s list, so I sauntered into Dubray Books on Grafton Street in Dublin and discovered one of my favorite authors, John Banville, has an alias. His Quirke Mystery Series, written under Benjamin Black, is seven novels strong and an interesting departure for him. I was so excited the fact that Even the Dead is the seventh novel in the series escaped me until I returned to my flat.
If any other writer had written Even the Dead I would’ve set it aside until I had read at least the first book in the series, but I knew I could trust Banville, aka Benjamin Black, to calm my anxiety and engage me. In addition to fulfilling my expectations, this prize winning author showed me the important power of brevity.
Let’s begin with the establishment of setting. The Quirke Mysteries are set in Dublin during the 1950s. I wasn’t aware of this until fifty pages in. This revelation could’ve been jarring, but in fact, I was delighted by the way my discovery came about. The era clarified itself through the accumulation of period details woven into passages like this:
…there would be the rich brown smell of roasting coffee beans from the open doorway of Bewley’s Oriental Café, and paper boys would be calling out the latest headlines, and there would be the sound of horse’s hoofs on cobblestones, and cries of the flower-sellers at their stalls. Summer. Crowds. Life.
The 1950s was never “formally” introduced but by the time my brain gathered enough of those little details, i.e. paper boys, to register the era in my mind I was already entrenched in the appropriate decade. This is a writer who truly trusts and believes in the intelligence of his readers. This was most evident in the passages when Black/Banville was writing about character relationships. When the novel opens our protagonist Quirke is residing on his brother’s estate, still convalescing after a severe beating he took several years back. He is looking out the window and is soon joined by his brother’s wife.
Old things that had once been between them stirred and flashed, like fish in a deep, shadowed pool.
We receive no details about their affair, but this one line in conjunction with all the things, which go unsaid within the scene, show us they were involved and it wasn’t a one-night stand. The tension that oozes from these characters in subsequent scenes is also a symptom of Quirke’s other interactions. Every single relationship in his life is awkward on some level.
Quirke had again that sense of pervasive, mild melancholy. He wanted to touch his daughter, to make some gesture that would communicate all that he felt for her, whatever that was. But of course he couldn’t do that.
This passage says an enormous amount about Quirke without the benefit of his backstory, although as an orphan Quirke doesn’t have much of one.
What drove him, he believed, was the absence of a past. When he tried to look back, to his earliest days, there was only a blank space. He didn’t know who he was, where he came from, who had fathered him, who his mother had been. He could almost see himself, a child standing alone in the midst of a vast, bare plain, with nothing behind him but darkness and storm. And so he was here, on the trail of another lost creature.
The mystery of Quirke is a wonderful example of how little backstory is needed to create intrigue. In fact, it is the lack of backstory that drives Even the Dead. The missing pieces provide a layer of vulnerability and desperation for the protagonist, which enhance his observations in the moment. Quirke’s alertness keeps the readers riveted.
I tend to avoid series because, other than Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series, I’ve never come across a protagonist whose mere presence intrigues and compels, until I met Quirke. Even the Dead is a mystery unlike any other I have ever read, and its power stems from brevity of what is said in conjunction with what goes unsaid.