There is a distinct undercurrent of nostalgia in the latest Quirke novel, Even the Dead, as a mysterious car accident leads the pathologist into yet another maze of people and motives in
1950s Dublin. Many characters are familiar: the pathologist; his daughter,
Phoebe Quinn; Malachy and Rose Griffin; and even Inspector Hackett, Quirke’s serendipitous partner in crime-solving. But years of hard drinking and long hours have begun to take a toll on Quirke, not to mention the shroud of guilt he drapes around his weary shoulders. Recently, he has been experiencing some problematic episodes of lost time. His doctors remain perplexed, the pathologist finding refuge in the home of his half-brother Malachy and his wife, Rose. Then the troubling death of a young man in a fiery car crash draws Quirke from his embrace of recovery, back to the world that has defined his years in Dublin.
Though happily present once more in the familiar hospital setting, the history of the city and his experiences there are weighted with the awareness of time’s passage and the shortening years ahead, people and memories accompanying Quirke like a ghostly Greek chorus linking past and present. Everything is etched more deeply in his consciousness: the formaldehyde scent of the room where he performs autopsies, Dublin’s elaborate cathedrals to hedonism and private respite, the pubs, the heat of the day giving way to the jewel-like beauty of the night: “At 10:30 the sky was an inverted bowl of bruised blue radiance, except in the west, where the sunset looked like a firefight at sea.”
Quirke finds young Leon Corliss’ gruesome death obliquely connected to events of generations and enemies of earlier days.
The tentacles of association and conflict yield new episodes of violence, born of old foes mired in intransigent beliefs. As the mystery around Leon’s death unfolds, the recent activities of the dead man and the identity of his missing girlfriend draw Hackett and Quirke into complicity to solve the case in spite of a morass of failed attempts to right a grievous institutionalized wrong. Leon’s demise serves as an example of how little has changed in a country in the iron grip of the Church of Ireland and its fanatical patriots, The Knights of Saint Patrick: “This is Ireland… There’s nothing the Church can’t get away with.”
Quirke seems to have reached a pivotal moment in his life, past loves and regrets finally put to rest as he forms a deeper bond with his daughter, makes peace with old friend and one-time adversary Mal Griffin, releases the burdens of family misadventures, and embraces a future that holds unexpected promise: “It was a sweet, secret luxury, to feel sorry for himself now and then, to lament his losses and woes.” The importance of Quirke’s experiences in 1950s Ireland has today become the stuff of outrage, Black’s historical perspective allowing a broader appreciation for the emotional damage inflicted on those in bondage to the burden of poverty and the harsh choices forced upon them by the Church. In many ways, Quirke’s lifetime of sins are expiated in this new chapter, the course of his life illuminated by regret, impending loss and a lightening of his soul: “As it was, even the dead were almost too much for him.” The iconic Quirke shuffles forward, conscious of faint stirrings of contentment, maybe even happiness.