Holy Orders by Benjamin Black

Black’s series, set in 1950s Dublin, continues with a gloomy mystery that offers occasional bright points of light.


Melancholy Dublin pathologist Quirke returns in Holy Orders, the sixth novel in a series of mystery novels by Benjamin Black (the pen name for Man Booker Prize winner John Banville). Fans of the series will easily slip into the larger plot arc, in which Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, gradually grows closer to him and outwards into her world, despite the tragedy at the center of this story: the body that turns up on Quirke’s autopsy table in the opening pages is that of Phoebe’s red-headed friend Jimmy Minor.

Quirke teams up with Inspector Hackett to follow the clues from the newspaper where Minor worked, to the priest he was bent on interviewing, to a tinkers’ camp outside town. As Quirke continues to combat his alcoholism and possible hallucinations, a previously unknown relative of Jimmy’s surfaces and Phoebe will make a surprising discovery about herself. Within the darkness of this tale of murder, she finds dazzling possibility.

The strengths of Black’s methodically paced mystery series echo Quirke’s own personality traits. The 1950s Dublin setting is murky and depressed; the Catholic Church is over-powerful and corrupt. Quirke wrestles most of all with a feeling of detachment from the living players in his life. He worries that childhood trauma–also at the hands of the church–and his medical career working exclusively with dead clients make him inaccessible to family, friends, and lovers. Phoebe’s personal growth threatens to steal the stage in Holy Orders, which will leave Black’s readers eager for the next installment in Quirke’s sad but engaging story.

This review originally ran in the August 27, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 confessions.

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