April in Spain
(Hanover Square Press, 2021)
John Banville did away with Benjamin Black before his pseudonymous rascal could affix his name to Snow (2020). Now, it’s Banville writing thrillers, crime stories, and what his one-time nemesis Graham Greene would have called “entertainments.” Banville’s latest is a “literary thriller” called April in Spain. A literary thriller is a book written by a Booker winner like Banville and a crime novel is a book committed to paper by a bloke called Black. You don’t need to have read or even know of the late Benjamin Black’s previous Quirke novels, set in the 1950s, to understand and enjoy April in Spain. It’s an exciting page turner with plenty of dark and quirky characters. The cranky Irishman’s crime fans will consider this the eighth novel in the Quirke series of crime novels, even though it’s written by the fellow who shut Black “in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch.”
April in Spain features the hard-drinking Quirke, State Pathologist since 1957, who is on holiday in April in San Sebastián, otherwise known in Basque as Donostia, in Northern Spain with his wife Evelyn. Quirke aficionados will recognize the title as a play on words: April Latimer is the name of the woman in the third “Quirke,” Elegy for April (2010). Despite her supposed death about four years ago in Ireland, Quirke now thinks he’s seen April, but he’s not positive it’s her. After all, Quirke met her only once years ago. She’s supposed to be dead, murdered by her brother Oscar, and this mystery woman calls herself Angela Lawless. Still, April’s body was never found, and the woman’s initials “AL” match April’s. Angela is Irish, too, and a doctor, one who left the room when she, perhaps, recognized Quirke. What’s more, Quirke accused the Latimer family of hushing up the whole thing about April’s death in Elegy. So, the unsure but pertinacious Quirke asks his daughter Phoebe, who used to be good friends with April, to come down to Spain to identify her. Phoebe, who’s had a rickety relationship with her father, agrees to make the trip. But she makes the mistake of going to April’s uncle, the powerful and dangerous Minister of Defence William Latimer with the news that Quirke may have seen April alive. Whereupon, the minister has Ned Gallagher, “the fixer’s fixer,” arrange to send a hitman called Terry Tice down to Spain to deal with the situation.
Ned had always been top of the class in Latin, and it was he who had come up with a motto that everyone in the service could quote from memory, even if they didn’t know where it had originated: Nunquam licentia revelat operimentum tuum in ano est—never leave your arse uncovered.
Kill April is the order, though Minister Latimer and Gallagher each avoid using the word “kill.”
Soon, Phoebe worries that she’s made a terrible mistake. She goes to Quirke’s friend Detective Chief Superintendent Hackett who sends Detective Inspector Strafford down to Spain with Phoebe. You might remember St. John Strafford as “Sinjun” from Snow, the DI who’s read Keats and Wordsworth and quotes Joyce. Here, he reads Tacitus’s The Annals, and quotes Kafka to Phoebe, “Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.”
Before the plot starts boiling, much of the novel involves the domestic banter between Quirke and Evelyn. They met in Dublin in Even the Dead (2016), and later honeymooned in the winter of 1957, showing up only as fleeting references in Snow. They’ve been married several years now. Evelyn is a psychiatrist who spoke many languages, but English was the language in which she was least proficient. The two get along well, as well as a middle-aged couple can be expected to. Quirke has even promised to cut down his drinking. A “reformed man,” Quirke still gets drunk, but doesn’t get “drunk drunk” anymore. “They never fought, at least not as other couples did, and as Quirke himself had fought with others of his women in the past.” Evelyn never seems to lose her temper, but she always has the last word. She uses it to persuade Quirke to go to Spain. “Northern Spain is southern Ireland,” she tells him. “It rains all the time, everywhere is green, and everyone is Catholic. You will love it.”
Finally, at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, Quirke complains at length about hotels in general while Evelyn kids him about his packing. “Why did you bring this woollen jumper? We are in Spain, not Scandinavia. What were you saying, dear, about hotels?” Quirke seems happy, or as Evelyn puts it to him, “You love to be miserable. It’s your version of being happy.”
But this is a crime drama, not a comedy of manners. So, Banville opens the story in London with the gunsel Terry Tice, who “liked killing people.” He also liked collecting new words like gunsel, “a word Terry had picked up from some old movie, he couldn’t remember which one. He liked it. Terry the gunsel.” I’ll bet the movie was The Maltese Falcon (1941). “Let’s give ’em the gunsel,” Spade tells Gutman near the end. Although Terry imagines himself like Richard Widmark’s Fabian in Night and the City (1950), he’s more like Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer the gunsel: a killer—short, slight, and hot-tempered; he’s not much of a planner, but not the usual eejit, either. It seems to me, Banville had in mind Gutman—who always struck me as a bit effeminate—with the creation of Percy, the “fat old poofter” who got Terry started in the business by hiring him to kill Percy’s own ma. While DI Strafford, Banville’s heroic copper, reads Roman history, Terry’s taste runs to Brighton Rock (1938), by Graham Greene. Why not give the evil hitman a book written by a fellow who once tried to prevent Banville from winning a £50,000 literary prize for The Book of Evidence (1989)? Brighton Rock is about a murderer named Pinkie, “a seventeen-year-old kid” and “a fearless killer.” Percy used to call Terry Pinkie sometimes, even though Terry was much older, but Terry doesn’t see much resemblance to Pinkie. Pinkie prefers a knife and Terry a gun, and Terry dresses much better thanks to Percy. Ironically, Terry, who considers it a “Strange business, making up stories and expecting people to pay to read them,” has bought and continues to read Greene’s entertainment.
Which year April in Spain takes place is a mystery, and mysteries need investigation. Banville gives us a few clues. We know that Quirke and Evelyn have been married several years. “Several” is at least three. And in Donostia, Evelyn is reading a Spanish newspaper article with the news, “General Franco has refused an appeal by the Pope to spare the lives of two Basque nationalists.” So, it’s the early 1960s when the Pope and the Catholic Church begin to stand up to General Franco who is still garrotting his Basque enemies. That pope is probably Pope John XXIII, who became pope in October 1958, and died in 1963. Pope John started criticizing Castro in Cuba around 1962 and maybe Franco around the same time. We know that after Quirke manages to get April to have lunch with Evelyn and him, April shows up looking like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (October 1961). Banville writes, “all that was lacking was an ebony cigarette holder and a diamond tiara.” So, I fix the time as April 1962. I deserve a pint of Guinness.
In his relatively short career, 2006–2020, Black reused characters throughout his crime-writing gig. So does Banville, here in this Quirke novel, in Snow, and in his earlier Banvillian work, for instance, the characters in the so-called Alexander and Cass Cleave Trilogy: Eclipse (2000), Shroud (2002), and Ancient Light (2012) and in The Frames Trilogy, a triptych about art that consists of The Book of Evidence (1989), Ghosts (1993), and Athena (1995).
As to the prose style in his serious novels—Banville has been compared to Nabokov and Henry James, who he considers “the greatest practitioner of the art of the novel at its purest.” Not only does he claim James as an influence, Banville writes Mrs. Osmond (2017), a sequel to James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881), as a pastiche written in a way that uncannily replicates Jamesian style. Banville’s crime novels, those Greene-like entertainments, though, are written in “as plain a style as possible,” he says. That style is more akin to Raymond Chandler than James, with Banville watching, thesaurus in hand, over Black’s shoulder and changing a word or two. Just as Banville made his tribute to James, Black imitates Chandler in The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014), a Philip Marlowe novel. Of Greene, Banville says, with rather back-handed praise, “He was the darling of the middlebrows—not a pejorative term; what would fiction do without the middlebrow reader?” How ironic the Banville-Black metamorphosis into a singular author—writing novels and entertainments for the middlebrows just as his nemesis Greene did from the start.