John Banville's latest is a classic, Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the sunshine of Spain

  • April in Spain, by John Banville. Faber, $29.99.

In April in Spain, John Banville has completely emerged from the shadow of his alter ego, Benjamin Black, to send a message to the crime fiction genre that he is a formidable competitor.

The process began with Snow (2020), the first crime novel Banville wrote under his own name. As Black, Banville had written seven dour, atmospheric novels set in Dublin in the 1950s featuring his heavy drinking detective Quirke, the state pathologist.

In Snow, a classic country house murder mystery, also set in Ireland in the 1950s, Banville introduced a new detective, Inspector St John Strafford, an outsider in the Irish Garda because of his Anglo-Irish Protestant heritage.

In April in Spain, Banville brings Quirke and Strafford together in another novel inspired by a classic Agatha Christie motif, murder in the sun.

Quirke is now happily married to Evelyn, an Austrian psychiatrist, and together they are on holiday in San Sebastian, staying at the upmarket Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra.

Quirke is unusually happy and he isn't drinking as much. "Maybe, he thought, the way of life here, the slow mornings, the softness of the slightly damp, lacquered air, the general yieldingness of things - maybe it would bring about a transformation in his character, make a new man of him".

One night, at their favourite café in the Old Town, Quirke hears in the crowd an Irish voice, a woman with a middle-class, south-side, Dublin accent. He recognises the voice and the young woman, a friend of Phoebe, his daughter, called April Latimer. He knows it can't possibly be April because, to the relief of her powerful political family, she had died before she could reveal devastating family scandals.

Quirke makes a phone call to his daughter, unable to foresee the sequence of events that will follow from Phoebe agreeing to come to San Sebastian to confirm Quirke's suspicions.

Quirke's friend, Superintendent Hackett, decides that Inspector Strafford will accompany Phoebe, while the Latimer family simultaneously decide on more drastic action.

April in Spain is more than a crime thriller. It is an elegant novel, eloquent in language, vivid in imagery.

Banville obviously relishes exploring the impact of sex, sun and sand on the Irish "abroad": the "pallor" of their skin; the "tricky matter of how to get into their swimsuits" and their resistance to foreign food. Quirke was "against the idea of local specialities, which in his experience were all too local, and rarely special."

However, the frisky, satirical tone eventually takes a dark turn, and the ending will horrify.

This story An atmospheric thriller set under a holiday sun first appeared on The Canberra Times.