APRIL IN SPAIN. By John Banville.

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APRIL IN SPAIN. By John Banville. Faber & Faber

For much of this hugely enjoyable and exciting thriller, John Banville is in playful, almost skittish, mood. It’s the 1950s and Dublin pathologist Quirke (previously encountered in the books by the author’s former alter ego Benjamin Black), has embarked on a happy second marriage.

He and his Austrian psychiatrist wife Evelyn are holidaying in San Sebastian and it’s all lovey-dovey at the outset as the normally morose and curmudgeonly Quirke (for whom “petulance was a pastime”) marvels at Evelyn’s poise, equanimity and good humour, not to mention her bottom, which, when he teasingly smacks it, wobbles “in the wonderful way that it did”.

And the playfulness persists even when he spies a Irish young woman, doctoring in a local hospital, who looks remarkably like a close friend of his daughter Phoebe – the only problem being that the young woman in question, the offspring of a powerful political dynasty, had been presumed dead four years earlier after her brother confessed to murdering her.

Her body had never been found and Quirke initially regards this chance meeting as no more than intriguing, but when he phones Phoebe about it she takes it more seriously, contacting the girl’s intimidating ministerial uncle before flying out to Spain in the company of detective St John Strafford, whom we had previously encountered in Banville’s last thriller, Snow.

There turns out to be a lot at stake here and we shouldn’t forget the book’s ominous opening sentences, which had informed us that professional hitman Terry Tice “liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Maybe liked wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid. But money was never the motive, not really”.

So how does the London-based Terry Tice fit into the Iberian scheme of things and what’s he doing in Dublin, haunting Wynn’s hotel bar on Lower Abbey Street and the Eblana bookshop on Grafton Street, where he buys a copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock while musing about the “strange business” of being a novelist “making up stories and expecting people to pay to read them”. The author is having fun here and, indeed, Terry is intentionally reminiscent of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, though even more frightening.

And even more than in Snow, which I thought outstanding, Banville juggles his various characters – the loathsome political uncle, the devious secretary general to the government, Phoebe’s straitlaced boyfriend – with the assurance of a master, offering back stories for each of them that provide both depth and urgency to their decisions and actions, while also evoking an extraordinary sense of place and period, whether in Dublin or San Sebastian.

Throughout the book, Quirke struggles with his own alcohol-fuelled demons, which are a constant worry for Phoebe, though treated with dismissive contempt by venal politicians, their only concern being to hush up their own involvement in a tale of incestuous abuse at the hands of a patriotic patriarch, “the clan chieftain”, who, in the official legend, had taken his own life “in a fit of noble despair. The country had failed him, it was said”.

And the Ireland of the time being what it was, the scandal “had been contained, of course; that went without saying”. But now, with the reappearance of the daughter, it’s at risk of being exposed, and so we have the convergence in San Sebastian of Quirke, Evelyn, Phoebe, Strafford and, not least, Terry Tice, who’s been sent over to do a job.

There’s nothing more for a reviewer to say, except to that the book is the ultimate page-turner, expertly paced and beautifully written.

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