Thursday, January 20, 2011

April, come she will

I'm not sure why I started reading Benjamin Black's mystery series (and I would call them more atmospheric than mysterious) featuring the alcoholic medical examiner Quirke. Must have been a review. I like them, mostly for the rainy days and smoky nights and what seems like a dead-on description of the stultified Catholic backwater that was Dublin in the 1950s. Elegy for April is the third Quirke mystery, and while I must read in order, I'm not sure it's utterly necessary. I selected this for listening solely because of the narrator, Timothy Dalton. He does not disappoint.

Quirke (first name so ridiculous that he never shares it ... shades of Morse) has been in a clinic drying out and so he doesn't know about the group of friends his daughter Phoebe has taken up with recently, until she asks him to look into the disappearance of one of them, a young doctor in training April Latimer. Quirke enlists the help of his copper friend, Inspector Hackett, and they begin poking around. After finding a bit of blood in April's otherwise pristine bedroom, they approach her estranged family. The Latimers, a family with political and religious power, appear to not care what has happened to April and strongly discourage Quirke from pursuing his inquiries.

Most readers will probably figure out April's fate (or have a pretty good idea) once that blood is analyzed. The pleasure here is in the setting. Black gives us frigid, rainy nights where you don't bother to put a shilling in for the fire since you'll never get warm, fog so thick you can't see where you're driving, the fug of cigarette smoke and stale beer in the local pub, squeaky linoleum floors and chilly steel dissection tables at the morgue. You get the picture, literally. The writing is so evocative that you grow as familiar with Dublin as the novel's characters.

Quirke is an interesting character whose attractions keep me reading. He's deeply troubled (it doesn't take him very long to fall off the wagon), but in this novel he barely uses his scalpel. There's a lot of humor here (mostly about Quirke buying an expensive car that he doesn't know how to drive), and Black leaves you in no doubt how he feels about the Catholic power system and its stranglehold on all aspects of life in Ireland. In that vein, good rarely triumphs. These mysteries are not for those who like their solutions neatly tied up at the end.

I confess that Timothy Dalton was my first James Bond (I know, I know), so I don't know if I became enamored of him or Bond. Either way, I was looking forward to listening to him read. He's got a deep, resonant voice that he uses to give the story an epic feel. He gives what I'll call a bard-like reading, rather than an actor's one. It's not a flashy narration -- characters aren't voiced, the volume and pace remain steady. There's hardly an Irish brogue to be heard. Certainly, we hear emotion in his delivery, but it's not of the scenery-chewing variety. Dalton is content to let the words speak for themselves. It's definitely a different kind of listening, but I liked it. (It was a particularly welcome change from the screeching mayhem that preceded it.)

The audiobook begins and ends with a musical interlude that can in no way be described as elegiac. I'm recalling it as perky, and perhaps even somewhat martial. I know nothing about audiobook production, but it seems that using an elegy might be appropriate for a book called Elegy for April.

Elegy for April by Benjamin Black
Narrated by Timothy Dalton
BBC Audiobooks America (the audiobook's intro says Macmillan Audio), 2010. 8:29

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