The Quirke series by Benjamin Black (the pen name for John Banville) is classified in the mystery genre, and fittingly so. However, the mystery presented in the sixth and latest installment of the series takes a backseat to the character development. Set in Dublin (Ireland, not Ohio) in the mid-1950s, HOLY ORDERS and its predecessors feature Quirke, a well-pickled pathologist who, at the request of his friend, Inspector Hackett, occasionally and unofficially plays the role of assisting in the investigation of high-profile or other unusual murders. As is specifically noted in the book, this is not a “Holmes/Watson” relationship; both men are fairly equally matched in terms of intellect and intuition.
"One senses that future volumes of this eminently readable series will continue to balance the personal and the homicidal as the intellect and humanity of each and all of the prominent characters are explored..."
The mystery in HOLY ORDERS centers on the very violent death of Jimmy Minor, a somewhat abrasive newspaper reporter. Quirke and Hackett both had a passing acquaintance with the deceased, but it is Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, who was close friends with the man, thus establishing a more personal stake in the case for Quirke, at least to a minor degree. It develops that Minor was investigating a Catholic priest who was connected in some manner with a nearby colony of “tinkers,” an aggregation that is the Irish equivalent of gypsies. However, Quirke and Hackett are quickly stonewalled not only by the church hierarchy but also by the priest himself.
The time period in which the book is set is one during which the Catholic Church is powerful enough to be an authority unto itself, so that there is little that Hackett can officially do. Quirke strikes off on his own, but with mixed results. The investigation, such as it is, hits an official dead end; before all is said and done, though, a rough and appropriate justice is carried out from a somewhat unexpected source.
The murder mystery that forms its heart notwithstanding, HOLY ORDERS is a very character-driven work, with Quirke and his daughter, Phoebe, at the wheel. Quirke’s alcoholism is in full bloom here. It is said that an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than their doctor. If Quirke, a Dublin pathologist, had living patients, any and all would be hard-pressed to keep up with him. A tipper of the “five o’clock somewhere” persuasion, Quirke slowly becomes aware that all is not right with him. Specifically, he is having hallucinations to the extent that the lines between fantasy and reality are becoming indistinguishably blurred. Of course, it has nothing to do with the quantity of his alcohol intake; at one point, Quirke mentions to his adoptive brother that he knows the problem isn’t due to delirium tremens because he has had those before and what he is presently experiencing is different.
Still, something is obviously wrong, and virtually everyone who encounters Quirke during the course of the story comments on his appearance and demeanor. It takes Quirke the entire duration of the book to begin to take steps to do something about it; whether those steps are going in the right direction remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Phoebe is at an emotional conundrum occasioned in part by the death of her friend, Jimmy. While there was never a romantic relationship between them, his death ironically causes her to cross paths with someone who leads her to question her feelings and emotions on several different levels.
One senses that future volumes of this eminently readable series will continue to balance the personal and the homicidal as the intellect and humanity of each and all of the prominent characters are explored, using the criminal and political elements of mid-20th-century Dublin as a backdrop.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 23, 2013