Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Benjamin Black: Christine Falls.
This was also in my bag for our January cruise, along with Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which, in retrospect, was not an inspired choice for a beach book.
Christine Falls is another matter; this one was a cracking good vacation read. I picked this up in my local bookstore on the recommendation of one of the staff there, and it's a real find. The Dublin City Pathologist in the 1950s named Quirke (we never learn his first name) stumbles into his office in a drunken stupor after an office party one night to find his adoptive brother, a renowned obstetrician, furtively tampering with the death records of a young woman who has just shown up in the dim recesses of Quirke's basement morgue. By the time he sobers up the following morning, the body has been replaced with someone else entirely and nobody knows what's what. Almost on a whim he starts poking around, and what follows is a gripping whodunit involving a group of people with higher and higher connections who seem very determined that Quirke not get to the bottom of his mystery. What appears to be a second, unrelated story about a naive young girl in a bad marriage adopting a baby pops up about a third of the way through the book, and gradually knits together with the main plot. The story is soon fairly swirling with rich and poor, law enforcement and Jesus folks, two continents.
I'd never heard of Benjamin Black before, and I had to wonder at the name when immediately one opens the cover one learns that it's a nome de plume for the Irish novelist John Banville; why bother at that point? Banville says he picked a different name since it's a wholly different kind of writing from his norm. Since I've never read anything of Banville either, I'll have to take him at his word. But Banville or Black, this book alone would seem to put him on the map. It's a brilliantly-told noir-ish story, with a host of deftly drawn characters, and a fairly lively pace.
Banville has a gift--something I absolutely lack--for not overworking his subject matter; he picks his words carefully and with great skill, and leaves it at that. There's a skill in what is left unsaid, a sense of the silences having been carefully composed. His main characters--especially Quirke--are a bit recalcitrant and reserved, and it needs time to assemble a clear picture of what has transpired. That's the point of a mystery, I know, but he does a particularly good job of making the unexplained parts seem accidental, incidental to the characters' lives--as indeed they would be--and yet it all serves to paint a rich, three-dimensional picture.
Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so, as Banville has written a second Benjamin Black novel which continues Quirke's story. (There is a third Benjamin Black novel as well, a recent compilation of a New York Times serialization, but it has no connection to the previous two books.) I'm already in the midst of that sequel, The Silver Swan, and we'll get to that shortly.
But for now, I'm thrilled to have discovered Christine Falls. Highly recommended.