Pathologist Quirke is back in another dark drama set in the mid-1950s Dublin. The murder of local reporter Jimmy Minor propels Quirke and Detective Inspector Hackett to the doorstep of Church inscrutability, an unnecessary reminder that the Catholic Church controls every aspect of Dublin society, whether politics, finances, distasteful newspaper coverage or public moral directives. The firm hand of the Church is felt everywhere, but nowhere as much as in the lush silence of a rectory, where Quirke and Hackett inquire about an interview with popular priest Father Honan. They’ve come to this remote avenue of investigation because of the paucity of clues in the case. Only the priest’s name and a casual mention of a tinker’s camp are the results of a fruitless search through Jimmy’s effects in his apartment and his desk at the newspaper. The fact that his body was found floating naked in a local canal, his face beaten nearly unrecognizable, yields nothing but the savagery of the crime.
Quirke’s experience while at the rectory reveals the extent of the childhood trauma that has led to his bleak perspective of humanity. The meeting with Honan’s superior triggers a nightmarish flashback, terror assaulting him in the confines of holy luxury, the hushed hallways and silent rooms evoking long-repressed memories of helplessness at the hands of the powerful, the silent scream of one who knows no one will answer his cries. Quirke begins to question his sanity after the bizarre visit, where reality seems severed from experience and Hackett looks askance at his usually coherent friend. In any case, Honan is not to be found, perhaps already on his way to a new posting in Africa.
Over tea, Quirke gently questions his daughter, Phoebe, about Jimmy’s personal life, knowing the two were friends, but Phoebe has little to offer. A daughter acknowledged late in life—another choice Quirke has reason to regret—their relationship is rocky, Phoebe sensitive, shy and painfully conscious of the personality traits she shares with her father, their mutual lack of warmth inhibiting an already awkward relationship. Trying not to judge her father for his mistakes, Phoebe has yet to define herself either with Quirke or in her relationship with his assistant, David Sinclair, unsure if they are courting. She is even more confused after meeting Sally Minor, Jimmy’s sister from London who has come to learn more about his murder.
Much as Quirke’s exchanges with Phoebe reveal his inability to freely express affection, his love affair with Isabel, an actress, best illustrates Quirke’s struggle to effectively connect with another in a meaningful way. Their on-and-off relationship has been undermined by his ambivalence. Though it comes from early trauma, it is painful to the patient Isabel, who once attempted suicide over the affair. She understands Quirke’s many flaws as well as the depth of his pain, unable to release her frail hopes for a future. Of anyone, Isabel knows Quirke most intimately: his dark dance with despair, his straddling of the worlds of the dead and the living, the damage done to his young boy’s heart, his refuge in the bottle and his brilliant mind. It is Isabel who confronts Quirke with a rare truth: “I sometimes think you like your wounds.”
Armed with a name, a hunch and the grim determination to get the answers he seeks, the circumstances of Jimmy’s murder are unearthed through Quirke’s unorthodox investigation. Justice is yet foiled, a monolithic Church unassailable in its claim to Godliness. There are secrets meant to be kept, revenge meant to fester, to infect later encounters. And Black leaves us with another mystery, Quirke’s future shrouded by an inexplicable meeting, Isabel unmentioned and Phoebe searching for change. The enigmatic Quirke seems destined toward a solitary journey, bereft of joy, moving inexorably along a path into darkness.