The Lock-Up: A Novel
- By John Banville
- Hanover Square Press
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- July 17, 2023
Familiar tropes are cast aside in this outstanding pseudo-whodunit.
In The Lock-Up, the 11th entry in his series of Dublin-based mysteries, John Banville serves up an intriguing demise: the apparent suicide of a young woman in a closed garage, her motorcar purring away. Banville’s customary protagonist, the alcoholic forensic pathologist tagged only as “Dr. Quirke,” pegs Rosa Jacobs’ death as staged, a killer’s attempt to mask a murder.
In a typical series mystery, the protagonist’s inspired insight, regularly compounded like interest, drives splendidly on to the final reveal. Not so here: Quirke’s offhand éclat is the sole one Banville allows him. For Quirke and his unwelcome sidekick, Detective Inspector St. John Strafford (the central figure in 2020’s Snow), the urgency of puzzling out the who and the why behind Jacobs’ death slips away even as the hunt is heating up. Instead, the personal entanglements her homicide spawns — and the dismaying political truths it exposes — glide in like a fog bank, nudging the murder aside and reducing the unwinding of the mystery, quite literally, to an epilogue in the voice of the killer.
This amounts to something of an anti-convention in the hoary practice of mystery series. Here, as in April in Spain (2021), the novel preceding this one in the series, Banville lets his formidable novelist’s impulses take the wheel. He seems more interested in creating a resonant social commentary than in plotting out a suspenseful whodunit.
His setting for this series — the first eight volumes of which were released under the pseudonym Benjamin Black — is Ireland in the mid-1950s. The most recent three, issued under his real name (a giveaway in its own right), flaunt this new upscale wrinkle, with Banville, the Booker Prize laureate, tossing familiar genre tropes overboard.
The happy result, especially in The Lock-Up, is a marvelous hybrid resplendent with silken prose and incisive glimpses of Irish upper-middle-class life and its muddy liaisons. The rift between Quirke and Strafford is one; the Catholic pathologist blames the Protestant detective, unfairly, for his psychiatrist wife’s recent death, recounted in April in Spain. (A bystander, she’s killed in a dying volley from an assailant whom Strafford has just shot.)
Another snag is the romance between Strafford and Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, which propels Quirke to a drunken assault on the detective:
“They heard the clatter of feet on the stairs and suddenly Quirke was there, his face flushed and his mouth working.
“‘Listen, Strafford, listen to me,’ he said in a congested voice, ‘you stay away from here, stay away from my daughter. You’ve done enough damage to my family —’
“‘Doctor Quirke,’ Strafford said, holding up both hands, ‘this is not the time for —’
“Suddenly, Quirke launched himself at the younger man, his right fist drawn back. Phoebe darted forward, stopping him short.”
Quirke himself — though still reeling from his wife’s passing — is not above temptation, drifting into his own liaison with the murder victim’s older sister Molly.
There’s religion, too. As in all matters Irish, it lies dead center in the larger postwar complications here, kindling the two investigators’ interest in the Jewish Rosa’s relationship with a refugee German industrialist. The Church establishment, suspiciously, is intent on protecting the expat from scandal, leading to a brilliantly rendered scene in which Bishop “Tommy” McAvoy, affably antisemitic, leans on Strafford’s boss to drop the investigation. The two, once school chums, get together at a Dublin hotel lounge:
“The bar was crowded, and sure enough, at least half the customers were priests. A momentary hush fell when Bishop Tom entered.”
Vivid set pieces like this, trenchant moments of offhand social comedy, push the narrative — if not the core investigation — onward. For instance, Quirke parries an awkward, subliminally nasty approach by a former lover at the chichi restaurant to which he’s brought Molly Jacobs. And the circumstances of Strafford’s estrangement from his own spouse bubble up insistently. “One day, Strafford’s wife had gone to visit her mother and had not come back,” Banville writes. “Nor would she, it seemed, given the considerable length of time she had been away.”
The investigation sputters on, distractedly frenetic, yielding at every turn to the subtle touch of an artist with other aims in mind. There are confessions of guilt, concessions to the genre, but neither investigator has much of a hand in extracting either. Read this book, then reread it. It’s that rewarding.
Bob Duffy reviews frequently for the Independent.