April in Spain by John Banville

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The first two sentences of this new book – ‘Terry Tice liked killing people.  It was as simple as that’ [3] – immediately draws the reader into April in Spain the latest crime novel by John Banville; now writing under his own name rather than under Benjamin Black.  The title of the book provides a subtle clue to the outcome of one sub-plot as the reader will discover.

Readers familiar with the author’s seven previous novels featuring Dr Quirke will feel immediately at home with Quirke’s daughter Phoebe Griffin, her friend April Latimer and Detective Inspector St John Strafford [the latter made his first appearance in Snow].

Quirke is now married to Dr Evelyn Blake – a German psychiatrist who provides a calming balance to Quirke’s morbidity – and together they are holidaying in San Sebastián [or Donostia as it is called in the Basque Autonomous Community].  After an accident with a pair of nail scissors and an oyster which declined to be prised open, Quirke finds himself in the local hospital where he is not treated by Dr Angela Lawless.  The reason for his non-treatment is the mystery at the heart of the novel.

Quirke is convinced that he knows Dr Lawless who seems to be doing all she can to avoid him.  Finally realising who Dr Lawless may really be, Quirke asks his daughter Phoebe to come to San Sebastián to assist in confirming her identity.  This simple telephone call sets in train a series of events one of which brings Terry Tice to centre-stage along with Detective Inspector Strafford – sent to Spain with Phoebe to ensure her safety.

Terry Tice – aside from his predilection for killing people – is an interesting young man.  Raised in an orphanage and spending some time in the army where he learned to kill, he is largely uneducated; but a chance remark leads him to Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock.  His assessment of the book provides an entertaining interlude.  ‘Terry knew after a few pages what Pinkie’s [the book’s protagonist] real problem was – queer, without admitting it not only to others but to himself as well’ [255-6].  From time to time through the remainder of the story, Terry shares his thoughts about the Greene novel and of Pinkie.

Like the spectre at a feast, Terry is glimpsed by most of the other characters as he wanders aimlessly around Dublin and then San Sebastián but no one really sees him; and of those who do, even fewer can recall where they previously saw him.

As the story advances, powerful figures emerge such as William Latimer – now a senior politician and uncle to April and Oscar Latimer; Chief Superintendent Hackett and Ned Gallagher – head of the Taoiseach [the Prime Minister] department.  Each has a role to play in the drama as it unfolds and each in his own way contributes to the denouement; and each by his actions and subterfuge exposes the machinations of a corrupt government.

John Banville has written an elegant and intelligent crime story resonating with a richness of language as in Strafford … stood up too, unwinding himself from the chair’s embrace as if he were uncoiling a length of particularly flexible rope [267].  As he so often does in his more serious novels, the author almost engenders in the reader’s mind a sense that some inanimate objects are really sentient beings – The telephone stood on a cabinet beside the bed.  A squat, smug black thing, it seemed to dare her to approach it [290].

All in all, April in Spain is a pleasure to read – it is, at the same time, a crime story where the ending is difficult to foresee and a psychological drama in which family secrets when uncovered lead to tragedy.  And thrumming like an engine on a cruise ship driving the plot forward is the Irish Catholic Church with all its influence over the lives of those who live in Ireland.

John Banville is the author of eighteen novels including The Sea which won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, and the Quirke series of novels under the name of Benjamin Black.  His previous book Snow was written as John Banville and introduced Detective Inspector St John Strafford.

April in Spain

[2021]

by John Banville

Faber Fiction

ISBN 978 0 571 36359 9

$29.99; 355pp

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