The Lock-Up: A Novel
“a haunting and memorable experience.”
Crime may be impulsive, launched by a forgotten set of car keys dangling from a sports car’s ignition or an easily hacked online account. On the other hand, it can root deep in the history of grievance, violence, prejudice, and war—which makes a far more complex narrative and is, of course, how John Banville situates The Lock-Up. War and its profits, going back to an escape from Germany during the Second World War, mean an excuse for a twisted soul to take revenge via markets and manipulation.
The death of youthful historian Rosa Jacobs, found murdered in her car in Dublin, provides the entryway for investigating both the “not yet past” past and today’s market rewards. It will take dedicated research (and a bit of provocation) to untangle the threads of motive for this crime, and in the process, two of Banville’s noted characters of previous novels, Detective Inspector St John Strafford and police pathologist Quirke collude. This isn’t new to Banville’s work—the pair, originally introduced in separate books to probe different Irish issues, appeared together in April in Spain (2021)—but because each is enduring a personal crisis, their conversations cut deeper this time around.
For instance, Quirke (gulping whiskey, of course) abruptly offers an awful description of an autopsy on a child, to which Strafford struggles to make a sympathetic response. Quirke next asks Strafford, “What was your first death?” Strafford takes the question as meant, and briefly tells of shooting an IRA man who’d pointed a tommy gun at him. And what neither can say aloud is, Strafford failed to save Quirke’s wife in a shooting the year before, and there’s no forgiveness on the table.
“Do you dream about him, the IRA man?” Quirke asked.
“No. Do you? Dream about the child?”
“I remember him, that’s all . . . All that, and the plume of steam coming off the child’s brain.”
The novel won’t get much more graphic than that, although the clumsy dance of intimacy between these two aging men continues painfully throughout. As is the case for the Troubles that background the book, and the Second World War yet further back, there seems to be no calm resolution for the long-term effects of trauma when nurtured today.
Still, with Banville’s Irish home terrain in mind, it’s startling as the action begins to tilt toward distant Israel. Perhaps the ongoing presence of war and violence there provides an apt counter to the fumbled efforts to make peace in Ireland. Or between Quirke and Strafford, a matter that becomes increasingly urgent as the walls separating their private lives are pierced. Loneliness followed by attraction may force the stones of resentment to move, like water that’s been frozen, then thaws, leaving gaps where it’s been.
For some years, Banville separated his literary fiction from his genre work in crime by using the pen name Benjamin Black for the genre books. But The Lock-Up comes out under his own name, and stitches together the two forms of narrative, the way Quirke and Strafford also become painfully connected. The death of Rosa Jacobs? Yes, of course, the investigation brings a solution, even resolution.
But what about the pain of Ireland and its besetting illnesses, alcohol abuse, and divisive religion?
“We know a great deal,” Strafford lied. “We have all the pieces, we just need to put them together. You can help us.”
“Why should I?” one likely murderer replies to him. Which is, when you think about it, a very sensible response, one that pierces the walls of genre and makes reading this crime novel a haunting and memorable experience.