Friday, July 28, 2017

On Benjamin Black's Holy Orders


Holy Orders: No spoilers, 


In Benjamin Black's (real name John Banville) Holy Orders, set in Dublin, an out and about couple discover a brutally murdered young  journalist in a canal. The chief cop, Hackett, gets his pathologist friend Quirke, the protagonist, involved in the investigation. 

It turns out that at part of the heart of the case is the Catholic Church. Trouble for Quirke is that his own childhood was spent in an orphanage run by priests who beat, abused and terrified him. The investigation leads Quirke to relive his past trauma. It torments him psychologically and sickens him physically. He desperately needs release from his torment. Solving the murder may hold some promise of that.

In the story, Quirke's family ties get implicated within the outer perimeter of the crime as Quirke recognizes the murder victim to be Jimmy Minor, a friend of his daughter Phoebe, with whom he has a tenuous, complicated relationship. Tying the ties tighter, Jimmy Minor's sister, Susan, comes back from London to Dublin and befriends Phoebe, lives with her for a while and thereby tracks Quirke's progress in the investigation. Eventually she becomes an actor in what might be thought of as the crime's resolution. The family ties become tightest when Phoebe becomes the subject of certain efforts by the Church to ward off Quirke's investigation.  

Black's prose  is vivid and sure as the story slowly and surely unfolds. Quirke, known only by his surname,  is a complicated, suffering, fallible and falling apart character. He's an alcoholic and a loner even as women are drawn to him. His personal life including such family life as he has and had is steeped in illegitimacy, adultery, mystery of parental origins and cruel mistreatment. 

He's not an anti hero but rather a counter hero and stands against the typical crime novel protagonist. Typically, the hero cop or the PI thrives on being an outsider and stands taller, is more compelling  and more authentic than the people and their conventional ways that he (usually he's a he, not always) thinks, works and fights his way through and past to solve the crime. There is in that by the way some of the tradition of picaresque. 

As he joins Hackett in investigating the murder, Quirke as counter hero begins to hallucinate and experience strange feelings out of the pressure created by his reliving the misery of his past. When the investigation takes Quirke and Hackett to Trinity Manor, that triggers his memories of his terrible orphanage bound childhood of beating, abuse and terrifying fear. In these memories and in the story itself Blacks's pillorying of the Church's horrible misdeeds is savage, unremitting and unforgiving. 

Quirke basically stumbles through the investigation and virtually by happenstance gets finally to understand what all occurred. In my way of seeing it, the solving of the crime is secondary to what Quirke suffers from and tries to work through personally as he deals with his own falling apart. 

Just to give a small taste of the flow, easiness and vivid lyricism  of Black's prose:

Page 32:

...The mother was a wisp of a thing, with hardly a pick on her...She wore old fashion spectacles with circular wire frames and thick lenses through which she peered about her frowningly, making constant tiny movements of her head, nervous and birdIke. She seemed more preoccupied than grief stricken, and kept sighing and murmuring in a vaguely distracted way. Her husband, a spry little fellow with rusty hair growing gray, was the dead spit of his murdered son...

Page 80:

He fetched a tumbler from the kitchen and poured a measure of whiskey and handed it to her, his fingers brushing hers; her skin felt cold and slightly moist. He had an urge to take her by the arm and drag her behind him into the bedroom and strip her of her clothes and clasp her against him, the chill long length of her, and smell her hair and her perfumed throat, and put his lips to hers and forget, forget everything, if only for s few minutes....

Page 145:

...Quirke stood up and went to the bar and asked for two more whiskeys. There was a constriction in his chest and his heart was doing its muffled, trapped bird thrashings. Was this, he wondered in alarm, the preliminary to another bout of alienation and fantasy, like the one he had undergone at Trinity Manor? He had been in the presence of a priest on that occasion too. Maybe he was developing an allergy to the men of the cloth. Or maybe he was just angry at the thought of Costigan and his endless machinations...

Page 251:

...Cinnamon, that was what he had been smelling: cinnamon, a soft brown fragrance. For a moment in his mind he saw a desert under moonlight, the clifflike dunes glimmering their edges sharp as scimitars, and in the distance, at the head of a long plume of dust, a line of camels and their drivers, and mounted on the camels swarthy sharp-faced  men in turbans and behind them their women, veiled, bejeweled, plump as pigeons...

I recommend this novel as a crime story that is more about personal suffering and the onset of failure than crime, that is psychologically penetrating about a complex man and is savagely indicting in its description of priestly depredation. It's wonderful in its giving the feel of Dublin and it's fluidly lyrical in its prose. In a word, it's literary. 

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