April in Spain by John Banville

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Reviewed by Harriet

Almost exactly a year ago, I reviewed John Banville’s Snow [here], an immensely enjoyable country house murder mystery. I particularly liked D.I. St John Strafford, the detective who attempts to unravel the messy strands of the murder of a Catholic priest. So when I saw that Strafford featured in Banville’s new novel, I was looking forward very much to reading it. What I didn’t know, though, was that April in Spain is in fact the eighth of Banville’s Quirke novels. This series, set in 1950s Dublin, features the eponymous gloomy, troubled pathologist who, Banville has said, came from ‘the damaged recesses of my Irish soul. I sympathise with Quirke; he is a very damaged person, as many Irish people are from their upbringing’ [Guardian interview 23 May 2014 ]. I had never read any of these, the previous seven of which were published under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black. But, as he explained last year, he had realised that he didn’t need Black any more: ‘“Why do I need this rascal anyway?” So I shut him in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him’. I only found out that April in Spain was one of a series after I’d read it, and thinking it to be a standalone didn’t hamper my enjoyment at all, though of course there are things I missed as a result. But Quirke sprang immediately to life anyway: his recurring memories of his miserable childhood of abuse in a Catholic orphanage, his struggles with alcoholism, and his various relationships,  were explained in enough detail to be completely satisfying. 

April in Spain is set in – yes – Spain. Quirke is there with his wife Evelyn – ‘He, Quirke, had a wife. It never failed to surprise him’. They are having what’s supposed to be a relaxing holiday, though Quirke is not really familiar with the concept:

His head felt empty. He supposed this must be what people meant by relaxation. He didn’t go in for it much, himself. In the normal run of things he thought of himself as standing on the edge of a precipice and having a hard time not letting go. Or that was how things used to be, until Evelyn came quietly up behind him and put her hands on his shoulders and drew him back from the brink and into her embrace.

Resentful at first of having to wear suitable clothes for the climate and to enjoy pottering aimlessly around, Quirke gradually stops complaining and starts to enjoy himself. It’s only when he overhears a woman’s voice in a restaurant speaking in what is immediately recognisable as a middle-class South Dublin accent that he realises he’s a bit homesick. When he next hears the Dublin woman speaking, he turns around to look at her. ‘A strange, striking creature’. She seems vaguely familiar, and he realises that the conversation he had overheard suggested she must be a doctor.  ‘He knew a lot of doctors, though none that was female, and none in Spain. There had been one in Ireland, a friend of his daughter’s. But she couldn’t be the young woman in the café, for she had died’. But after some other odd encounters, he is convinced that she must, in fact, be his daughter’s friend April, supposedly murdered by her brother many years ago (readers of the series will know that this formed the subject of Elegy for April, the third Quirke novel). Although this is hard to believe, he sets an investigation in motion, and is soon joined by his daughter Phoebe and D.I. Strafford. Together they set about solving the mystery. But there are dark undercurrents which delve deep into Irish politics, and will cause tragedy before everything is resolved.

Running parallel with Quirke’s story is that of a man by the name of Terry Tice. He is actually introduced at the very start of the novel:

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well-paid. But money was never the motive, not really. Then what was? He had given a lot of thought to this question, on and off, over the years. 

You might think Terry was a frightening character, and in some respects he is. We don’t find out for some time how he fits into Quirke’s story, but when we do, it has chilling results. However, he’s also a complicated character and in many ways a rather pathetic one – when Phoebe sees him in the street, he looks to her like ‘a sorry runt of a thing…..a prematurely aged and ravaged boy’. His life had started badly, in an orphanage in the West of Ireland – the same orphanage, in fact, from which Quirke had been rescued as a boy – where he too had suffered the terrible abuse that went on there. This same orphanage also features in Snow, where it provides a motive for the murder. Banville’s concern about so much that is disturbing in Ireland’s past, whether it’s politics as here or the corruption of the Catholic Church, is a primary focus in everything I’ve read so far and obviously in what I’ve learned about the rest of this series.

Banville is a remarkable writer, one I am anxious to read more of. I’m already exploring the Quirke back catalogue, but I really should plunge into one of his many non-crime novels. Where to begin? 

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

John Banville, April in Spain (Faber & Faber, 2021). 978-0571363582, 368pp., hardback.

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  1. I’ve had this one on my list for a few months (I don’t think it’s been released yet in the U.S.). I did know that it was one in a series, none of which I’ve previously read, so I’ve been a little hesitant about it. From your review, I see I can enjoy it as a standalone, although, as you note, I’ll miss some of the references.

  2. The Quirke books are very pleasurable and extremely melancholy. Great review of April in Spain. Where to begin with the non-quirky ones? I find Banville heavy going at times, but thought the one about Anthony Blunt was excellent (title forgotten).

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