Elegy for April, John Banville’s entertaining new release under his pseudonym Benjamin Black confirms that I prefer his mystery writing over his regular literary output. Every one of his books is blessed with the same intelligence and polish in terms of craft but his mysteries feel looser-limber, less confined, less precious and self-aware, and leavened with melancholy humor. It’s as if a writer who sometimes reads as if he cares too much has learned to care a little less.
This is the third Benjamin Black outing starring Quirke, a drunken (naturally) Irish pathologist with a complicated personal life, living in damp and stiflingly conservative 1950s Dublin. Quirke’s daughter’s friend, April, disappears, and Quirk reluctantly succumbs to pleas to help find her. The mystery at the heart of Elegy for April, as in the previous two books, swirls around those familiar Irish foibles (bordering on stereotype were it not so often true) of bigotry, abuse, and rigid Catholicism, so if Black’s planning a fourth (I imagine there’s no ‘if’ about it), he may want to expand his motive repertoire, before it gets too easy for the reader to untangle the knot. Still, one keeps reading because of the narrative’s swift and easy quality, with its bang-on descriptions (“an odd fey little creature with slicked-down, dandruffy hair and an overlapping front tooth”) and slight of hand metaphors (“the water brimming at both banks, and wrinkled like silver paper...”) that elevates him above most other authors in the genre, and I can’t help but wonder what would happen to John Banville’s (the literary novelist’s) work, if he allowed Benjamin Black to take over for a while. Something marvelous…?
(Why does it have Elegy for April: A Novel on the cover? What else is the reader supposed to think it is? I understand the designation ‘stories’ on the front of a book, but not ‘novel’ because surely novel is the default position. Methinks it is a signal that we’re not picking up a ‘mere’ mystery, but a mystery written by a master. A master on his downtime wearing silk jammies, true, but still a master. Does P.D. James add the designation ‘novel’ to her titles? When did we start adding it to any novel-length work? And why?)