Quirke, the pathologist protagonist of Benjamin Black’s series is one of those characters who is fascinating on the page, but who would probably be much less pleasant in person. He’s a brooder who speaks little—and is blunt when speaking. He’s a chain smoker and an on-the-wagon, off-the-wagon drinker who’s mostly on. He’s deeply disappointed everyone close to him. Nonetheless, Black makes him a believable voice for justice in this series of novels.
The Quirke novels are set in Dublin in the early 1960s (which at least partly explains all the smoking). The Catholic church is not just a religious power, but a political one as well, backed by a cadre of very wealthy men whose “do-good” projects tend to result more in profits for themselves than in good for anyone else.
Quirke’s family life is complicated, though he has long been a widower. He’s the adopted son of a wealthy judge, now deceased, and brother to the judge’s biological son. Quirke was romantically involved (or wanted to be) with his brother’s first and second wives. His family history unfolds along with this series of novels, so I don’t want to reveal any more. You can read Even the Dead as a stand-alone or begin at the beginning—in which case you’ll want Christine Falls.
In Even the Dead, Quirke and his friend (though that’s not really the right word, given the kind of person Quirke is) Inspector Hackett are investigating the staged suicide of a radical politician’s son and the disappearance of that son’s girlfriend. Quirke is recovering from head trauma, doesn’t quite trust himself, and hasn’t been to his pathology office in months. It’s his assistant’s discovery of a suspicious head wound on the “suicide” that pulls him back into work.
The case once again leads Quirke into the dark side of Dublin’s elite religious networks—and also reveals one more complication in his already-complicated personal history.
Black is an exceptionally good writer. The reader of “literary fiction” is just as apt to draw pleasure from Even the Dead as is the reader of detective novels—and also the reader of historical fiction with more modern settings. As winter days grow shorter, it’s oddly comforting to settle back into Quirke’s bleak world, sharing in his all-to-infrequent moments of success protecting the needs of Dublin’s less wealthy and powerful.
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