April in Spain: A Novel
In London we meet Terry Tice and are told in the first sentence that Terry likes killing people and will take money for doing so. He’s ex-military. He’s handy with a knife or a gun—whatever it takes.
In Donostia on the northern coast of Spain we are with Irish pathologist Quirke, who is vacationing with his wife Evelyn. Quirke is busy making comparisons with the dismal climate of southern Ireland. Quirke, the central character in six previous novels by John Banville/Benjamin Black, is not a happy camper. “All the same, however much the place might seem like home, Quirke still resented being on holiday. It was like, he said, being in a drying-out hospital. He had been in more than one such place, in his day, and he knew what he was talking about.”
In the long run-up to the main conflict in April in Spain, we go back and forth between London and Donostia before Quirke decides one day to open an oyster with a nail scissors rather than a proper shucking tool. He could have bought a proper tool, but he didn’t want Evelyn to reveal their identity as tourists by pointing or gesturing when it came to buying the needed implement.
Soon Quirke ends up a hospital with a nasty gash. He comes face to face with a young woman he had seen recently in a café. Her name, she tells Quirke, is Doctor Angela Lawless.
“She seemed to Quirke almost two convincing, like an actor playing the part of a doctor. She wore a white coat and flat-soled white shoes, and a stethoscope was draped around her neck in just the required fashion. She was older than he had taken her to be when he glimpsed her in the shadowy twilight at the bar Las Aracadas. He would put her now in her early thirties. She was small and quick, and watchful as a bird—he had the impression that at the slightest sudden movement she would fly off with a shrill cry and a clatter of feathers.”
In fact, she does fly off before finishing the treatment of Quirke’s wound. And Quirke grows suspicious that Angela Lawless is in fact a woman named April Latimer, who was supposed to have been murdered by her brother, who later committed suicide, back in Ireland. Quirke sets up a dinner and it’s not quite clear why trying-to-hide Angela/April would agree to it. “Why was she anxious, why agitated?” thinks Quirke. “And why had she come in this absurd disguise, that would fool no one, and that, on the contrary, only served to draw attention to herself?” (It’s a good, unanswered question. Why indeed?)
April was a friend of Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe. Alerted by Quirke to the possible discovery of April’s status as a person who is still alive, Phoebe heads to Spain. The Latimer family, it turns out is powerful, and there are secrets and scandals that must not come to light; the only thing to do is hire a killer and take care of matters once and for all.
There’s nothing wrong with a slow-burn build and a coincidence or two. The interplay between Quirke and his wife, so well explored by Banville during the opening scenes, is almost worth the price of admission. But the payoff here feels cliché and melodramatic, with the would-be killer smart enough until the moment s/he’s not.
April in Spain is a follow-up to a Benjamin Black novel, April for Elegy, and it incorporates a detective, St. John Strafford, from both an earlier John Banville novel, Snow, and a Benjamin Black entry, The Secret Guests.
It’s possible April in Snow is for Banville/Black completists only and that it’s a chapter in a much more complex Banville/Black saga yet to be revealed.