John Banville – April in Spain
“Terry Tice liked killing people”, begins John Banville’s nineteenth novel: “it was a matter of making things tidy…he had nothing personal against any of his targets…except insofar as they were clutter.” In a certain sense, Banville knows whereof he writes: April in Spain is a clutter-free giallo, utterly filleted of red herrings. It’s not a detective novel; it’s a crime novel, in which the characters converge on the nexus of their fates.
This is my fifth Banville but my first Banville thriller. The man himself used to be frightfully coy about his genre fiction, churning out his Quirke series, set in the 1950s, under the name of Benjamin Black (the nineteen books cited above do not include the novels on the Black list). Only recently has he acknowledged Quirke as his own, which seems like good sense – everyone knew that Black was Banville, and it’s only worth having a pseudonym if you’re going to do it properly, like Elena Ferrante.
Again, April in Spain is not a detective novel, and Quirke (we never learn his first name) is not a detective. He is the Irish state pathologist, but we meet him out of the office: his second wife Evelyn has dragged him away for a holiday in San Sebastián, which he endures with studied ill grace. Banville loses no time in flagging up Quirke’s failings. He sulks. He boozes. He asks for his steak well-done. He “enjoy[s] occasions of social awkwardness”, and expends some energy on others’ discomfiture. All this is serenely borne by the saintly Evelyn, who indulges his strops and loves him unconditionally. When Quirke finds himself in hospital – courtesy of takeaway oysters and a pair of nail scissors – he meets an Irish medic called Angela Lawless, who jogs something in his memory. Eventually he clocks that she is April Latimer, sometime tearaway friend of his daughter Phoebe. Except that April Latimer has been declared dead these four years, murdered by a mad brother.
From this point – roughly a third of the way through – Quirke ceases to be the narrative tentpole of the book and becomes one interior voice among many. The investigation falls to his daughter Phoebe, who makes the mistake of mentioning the news to April’s repulsive uncle William Latimer, Irish Secretary of Defence. Latimer extorts the help of the deviously bland Ned Gallagher, a civil servant who cannot afford to be outed from the closet, which is where he keeps all the ministers’ skeletons (and he himself has some rather more serious secrets than his sexuality). Phoebe, for her part, comes out to Spain under the protection of Detective Inspector St John Strafford, who plays the main role in Banville’s previous thriller, Snow.
Thus the narrative slinkies from one character to another, with virtually everybody getting at least one chapter except Evelyn, who remains as unknowable to her husband as she does to her reader. In fact Evelyn, who is Austrian, is the one voice on which Banville occasionally trips up: he tries to convince us that “English was the language in which she was least proficient” and makes her stumble over some unlikely words like “confound”, while not letting her miss a beat in lines like “Remember what you told me about Hemingway, that he brushed his teeth only with brandy because there were so many germs in the [Spanish] water?” More assured is Terry Tice’s geezer schtick, which goes far beyond mere patina and deep into the ventricles of his brain – indeed, as we head into the final act, it feels more like a Tice novel than a Quirke novel. On a whim, Terry buys a copy of Brighton Rock, and we follow his progress with it. “The book wasn’t bad, though he hadn’t read many books so he couldn’t really judge. The people in it were the sort he knew, though they were described in an exaggerated way. They were loud and brightly painted, like characters in a pantomime.” The literary faculty of Terry’s mind has hardly developed past childhood, hence the gauche, almost touching naiveté of his criticism. For the same reason, “the author” is never named: Graham Greene means nothing to him.
Banville has always done a good line in psychopathy (see The Book of Evidence), and Terry Tice is a psychopath who stirs both pity and queasiness. When an unwitting Phoebe spies him leaving the bookshop, he strikes her as “a sorry runt of a thing…going along at a rapid sort of strut, shoulders back and pelvis thrust forward…a not quite life-sized and in some way damaged manikin.” But if Terry is damaged, so is most of the cast. Quirke used to be a dysfunctioning alcoholic, and is now just a functioning one. Phoebe grew up believing him her uncle rather than her father. Evelyn’s family were exterminated in the Holocaust, though not even Quirke is allowed to know her parents’ names or how many siblings she lost. So the whole thing is pretty noirish, with only a light dusting of crime fiction’s campier pleasures. There’s no real sleuthing, no great moment of revelation; just the dread of the inevitable dénouement. And it’s a skill, keeping the reader hurtling towards what they know is going to happen.
April in Spain is published by Faber and is available here.