Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 384 pages; 2006.
It’s no secret that the author of this book, Benjamin Black, is actually Booker prize-winning novelist John Banville in disguise. Which partly explains why I rushed out and bought this in hardcover. I’m a longtime Banville fan and was intrigued as to how he would handle the crime genre given he’s largely made his name on the back of (high brow) literary fiction.
Christine Falls is certainly an intriguing and arresting read. I might have been holed up in my sick bed at the time, but I think my reaction would have been the same regardless: I just could not bear to put this book down and finished it in one sitting.
Essentially the story, which is set in 1950s Dublin, is about a pathologist, the love-worn Quirke, who discovers a colleague, Griffin, altering a file to cover up the cause of death of a young woman called Christine Falls.
Seeking to discover the real cause of the woman’s death, Quirke finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy, which involves not only Griffin but the upper echelons of Dublin society and the Catholic Church. Its tentacles stretch across the Atlantic to New England, and goes back several generations. The closer Quirke gets to unravelling this conspiracy, the more dangerous his investigation becomes and before long he’s being warned off in no uncertain terms.
Black/Banville adds additional layers to this quite straightforward storyline. He makes Griffin the foster brother of Quirke. This is further complicated by the fact that Quirke and Griffin married a set of sisters and that Quirke, who is widowed, has always carried a torch for the other sister. Quirke is especially close to his niece and is often accused of leading her astray, so there’s a lot of family tension to propel the story along.
Throw in a second narrative about a young American couple in New England who adopt a baby from a local Catholic orphanage and you get a well-rounded, multi-layered narrative with enough depth and breadth to keep even the most jaded reader interested.
And, as you would expect from such an experienced and accomplished author, all the various threads of the book are neatly tied together at the end, although I largely guessed the conclusion long before I reached it. Despite this, I found Christine Falls a deeply satisfying read.
This is aided, no doubt, by the Quirke character, who is beautifully realised and all too human. His tragic past adds a certain depth, and I especially liked his strong moral compass.
Setting the story in 1950s Dublin is yet another stroke of genius: it lends Christine Falls the required claustrophobia to make the novel a little darker, a little edgier than having set it in modern times.
But ultimately, I’m not sure this is a typical crime novel. It’s certainly no police procedural and it’s not exactly a detective story. Perhaps literary ‘mystery’ might be a truer description.
And for those of you who might have struggled with Banville’s style in the past, I can report that he has toned down his usual feats of literary flamboyance: the writing is very immediate and easy to comprehend, so there’s no need to keep a dictionary at hand. Good news, no doubt, for those of you who read on public transport!