The opening lines of ELEGY FOR APRIL by Benjamin Black set the tone for the book. It is a very good book, not a mystery in the strictest sense and not a thriller either. From the beginning, we know that April has come to some harm and Black weaves a story that draws the reader in, waiting.
As with the previous two books, CHRISTINE FALLS and THE SILVER SWAN, the focus of the book is a young woman who has stepped away from the accepted path for women in 1950’s Dublin. But, like the previous two books, the central character is Quirke, the tormented adopted son of Judge Garret Griffin, the distanced, adopted brother of Malachy Griffin, and the dominant male figure in the life of Phoebe. The relationships are very complicated and the reader will likely benefit from reading CHRISTINE FALLS first.
Phoebe comes to Quirke because she is worried about her friend, April Latimer, a junior doctor, whom she hasn’t heard from for over a week. Everyone tells Phoebe that she is letting her imagination take over, that she should wait, that April is probably gone away with a boyfriend. But Phoebe is insistent; she talks to April everyday and Phoebe is convinced that April’s silence is not a willful one.
Quirke agrees to ask some questions and calls upon his friend, Inspector Hackett, to look into April’s life. She has been estranged from her family for a long time and her only friends seem to be Phoebe, and Isabel, an actress, Jimmy Miner, a newspaper reporter, and Patrick Ojukwu, a student at the College of Surgeons. As Quirke asks questions, Phoebe realizes that she didn’t really know any of these people who were her friends as well.
The young women whose tragedies are the catalyst of the stories, are the victims of the society in which they live. April Latimer is the daughter of a hero of the 1916 Easter rebellion and the niece of a member of government. Her brother is a prominent physician. Her family has disowned her because of the hateful statements she threw at her mother, but the family won’t explain why these words served to banish a child. They order Quirke to give up his search for April, but Quirke is doing it as much for Phoebe as April and he will not bend to their demand. The Latimers have power and Quirke muses that, “Power is like oxygen…being similarly vital, everywhere pervasive, wholly intangible….” and he wonders what April has done to have that power turned against her.
ELEGY FOR APRIL continues Black’s indictment of the stultifying society of upper middle class Dublin where public adherence to the rules of the Catholic Church are a requirement of belonging. Quirke is a victim of his own demons and, despite his weaknesses, there is also strength.
An elegy is a mournful lament. The title is well-chosen.