Thursday, January 23, 2014

Elegy for April

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Elegy for April (Henry Holt & Co, 2010).

I read that "Benjamin Black" - a pseudonym that John Banville uses for his detective fiction - was writing an officially-licensed Philip Marlowe novel. Much as I'd like to be a snob about this sort of fanfickery, I'm immediately interested in such a thing. Robert B. Parker's pair of Marlowe books were, at best, if you squint, okay, but there's still so much life in that character that I'm curious what other writers might do with him. So I checked out one of Benjamin Black's earlier novels to get a glimpse of his style.

Elegy for April is the third in a series of hard-boiled novels set in the mean streets of Dublin during the 1950s. The lead character is an alcoholic forensic examiner named Quirke. After reading the book, I looked up some background and learned that there was a BBC adaptation of the first three of these books (one of those three 90-minute movie mini-seasons like they do for Sherlock) starring Gabriel Byrne as Quirke. I can almost see that. I think that Byrne's a little more handsome, and not quite as gray, than how I envisioned this kind and determined man, but almost.

But while my jury's still out on the teevee casting, I can certainly see why the author was commissioned to write a Marlowe novel, because Raymond Chandler's DNA is all over this book. I wish the character's name wasn't such a joke - see, the "quirk" this time out is that he's decided to buy an expensive car, an Aldis, without knowing how to drive yet - but he fulfills the Chandleresque drive to get to the truth at any cost, insisting on pushing and forcing awkward questions of people who don't wish to be involved. In this case, one of his daughter's friends, a young doctor named April Latimer, is missing. Latimer's family is very wealthy, very powerful, and very much unconcerned with what their free-spirited, irresponsible kin has done or what has happened to her, even after her apartment is searched and dried blood is found. The medical tests prove that somebody had performed an illegal abortion in the bedroom.

Quirke soon decides that the Latimers are covering up something. Either they know that April is dead, or they know that she was going to scandalize the family with her affair with a young Nigerian doctor and have spirited her away. In time, as is the case in these books, Quirke learns that the truth is a little more alarming and disquieting than he'd predicted. He gets the same ugly result that Marlowe often experienced: the detective in hard-boiled noir fiction must ask questions, must keep probing, even when it's not his affair any longer. Sometimes, the truth is very ugly. Recommended, with high hopes for the Philip Marlowe book later this year.

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