Humans, even those we love, are capable of monstrous deceits - or so Irish pathologist Quirke learns when he delves beneath the surface of what appears to be a simple childbirth death. In an alcoholic haze, Quirke returns to the morgue, where he discovers his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, doctoring the notes of deceased Christine Falls. So disturbed is he by this unusual sight that Quirke begins a clandestine investigation into the young woman’s death, only to be threatened and brutalized for his endeavors.
A moody, hard-drinking man since the death of his wife, Delia, in childbirth nearly twenty years before, Quirke is a loner who barely maintains a relationship with his brother-in-law and Mal’s wife Sarah, a woman Quirke himself has coveted. Instead, he married Delia. The one bright spot in Quirke’s life is his niece, Phoebe, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who is chafing at her family’s expectations and social conventions in 1950’s Dublin.
Benjamin Black (a pseudonym for John Banville) is a masterful strategist who imbues this novel with a strong sense of converging events from the beginning of Quirke’s journey through the troubled waters of the past and the unpredictable present, on the verge of revealing ugly secrets carefully hidden under the veneer of polite society.
Making accommodations with a life gone wrong from the early years in Boston, where Mal and Quirke meet the women they will marry, Quirke remains forever the outsider hovering at the edges of a world of sanctimonious do-gooders, his father-in-law in Boston and Mal’s father in Dublin, Judge Garret Griffin, soon to receive a papal knighthood.
The people who define his place in society remain an enigma to Quirke: Sarah, the sister he should have married; Mal, the distant, disapproving brother-in-law; and the judge, who runs his dynasty with a gloved fist. Broken by his disappointment in marriage and the death of his wife, Quirke chooses to be an outcast, maintaining a close relationship only to his niece, a quiet passion for Sarah and an increasing distrust for Malachy’s motives.
Stubbornly determined to his own detriment, Quirke ignores the warnings, catching a whiff of good deeds gone sour and the manipulation of the helpless to serve the purpose of a hubristic cause. The Irish temperament and close-knit family ties are major elements in this unfolding drama, the unwanted burdens of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and a scheme to contribute to the cause of motherless orphans.
Reluctant, finally, to face bitter truths about himself, Quirke pays a significant price for his curiosity. Yet at heart he cannot do otherwise, forcing years of secrecy into the open, corruption and power in the name of charity. Both humbled and enraged by his discoveries, Quirke stalks through this novel, a tragic, brave figure.