When I began to write my Quirke stories, first as a television mini-series back around the year 2000—yes, Christine Falls, the first Quirke novel, was adapted from a script that was never going to be filmed—I did not realise how fortunate I was to be able to remember Dublin in the 1950s, and use it as a background. Indeed, the city is more than background, it’s one of the main characters in these books.
In the 1950s, the 8th of December, Feast day of the Immaculate Conception, no less, was a holy day and a public holiday, and the day when people from the country came to town to do their Christmas shopping. It also happened to be my birthday—I doubt mine was an immaculate conception—and every year on the 8th I was brought to Dublin from Wexford, my home town, as a birthday treat.
I vividly remember those trips. I would board the train with my mother in a freezing, pre-dawn hour—I can still smell the smoke from the engine, for this was in the days of steam trains—and wait sleepily for the pink light of morning to come creeping across the frost-white fields as we trundled northwards. We would alight at Westland Row station, and I would feel that I had arrived at the Gare du Nord.
Dublin in that time was dark, dank and Dickensian: it looked, and smelled, like a city of the 1850s rather than the 1950s. Yet I was thrilled by it: even yet, there are moments when a whiff of diesel fumes from the back-end of a double-decker bus will transport me straight back to those December days of long ago. We had no double-deckers in Wexford . . .
Of course, the magical city, as I imagined it to be, was entirely a façade, where a veneer of devout respectability covered all manner of crimes and misdemeanours that never got reported in the newspapers. While I was happily tucking into a Knickerbocker Glory ice cream in the Palm Beach Café on O’Connell Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, around the corner children were starving in some of the worst slums in Europe. For most Dubliners, the only relief from poverty—financial and spiritual—was alcohol. The place reeked of porter, cigarette smoke and horse dung. What more could one ask, setting out to write noir fiction?
Later on, in the 1960s, I lived with an aunt in her flat in a decaying Georgian pile in Upper Mount Street, one of the loveliest thoroughfares in the world, and still untouched by the hand of the developer. Quirke lives in that house, number 39, hard by St Andrew’s Church, known fondly as the Pepper Canister, and near the canal, the banks of which are his favourite haunt. When my novel The Sea was filmed, by coincidence the last day of shooting took place directly opposite number 39. Life has its eerie moments.
Even the Dead is published on the 28th January, 2016.
Visit Benjamin Black on his website at benjaminblackbooks.com