It seems almost unfair, sometimes, how talented John Banville is. He’s a truly excellent novelist under his own name, and then he also writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. And they’re not lazy crime novels, something tossed off just for fun. They stand on their own as thoughtful explorations of justice, love, duty, and honor.
In A Death in Summer, protagonist Dr. Quirke takes on one of the most heinous crimes of 20th century Ireland. Not the titular death in summer, of course. That’s just a murder, but it’s a lead-in to the greater crimes and sufferings of postwar Dublin, and those of the war and before it as well.
Banville barely mentions the nature of this greater crime over the course of the novel. It’s implied, lurking in the shadows. But we all know what happened. And Dr. Quirke knows it, because he experienced it as a child himself. But even experiencing it doesn’t help him identify it when it’s happening to someone else.
The novel as a whole is really an indictment of the Church, the government, the police, the families, of everyone, of all of Irish society. It’s infuriating. And it makes you wonder how it could possibly have happened. How any of it could have been hushed up for so long. But in the same way that Banville manages to write a novel about child abuse without actually saying “child abuse” at any point, we know. We’ve experienced it ourselves.
Just like Quirke’s childhood didn’t open his eyes to what was happening to other children, knowing it happened in Ireland in the 1940s doesn’t make it any easier to identify it in your own backyard.
The Hairpin had a post this past week about how stories—true stories, in this case—can act as passwords, unlocking other secrets, one after another. And after reading that post, and reading A Death in Summer, I understood the way these things remain hidden even more.
And it reminded me of something. When was ten or so, I was at a summer day camp with a boy nobody liked. I don’t remember his name, but he was awkward even by the standards of gawky tweens, and was prone to making up stories. He said had a girlfriend who lived in Canada, his dad drove a Ferrari, he was a black belt in a secret martial art he was sworn never to demonstrate, that kind of thing. He also claimed a degree of sexual experience that was improbable for a child his age. None of us believed a word of it.
Guess what part of his story I believe now?