Christine Falls is the first novel in a
planned series about hard-drinking Irish pathologist Garret
Quirke written by Booker Prize winner John Banville under the
open pseudonym Benjamin Black; the next volume,
The Silver Swan, will be published in
both the UK and USA in March.
Christine Falls It's a suspenseful, atmospherically noir tale set in 1950s Dublin and Boston in which we meet the troubled and lonely Quirke, raised by a socially prominent local Catholic judge after being rescued from a horrendous orphanage. Quirk is also connected to the family by marriage - he married one daughter of a powerful Boston Irish-American family (who died in childbirth) while the judges son, Malachy, married the other, who Quirk also loved.
When Quirk comes to after another night of hard drinking he can't even be sure that he saw Malachy, the city's top obstetrician, writing in the morgue's record book the night before, but his recollection is confirmed when he finds Mal's pen by the book, and his suspicion that all is not as it should be is quickly confirmed when he recalls the body of Christine Falls and carries out his own autopsy. Right from the prologue we know that a baby is involved in the story, so it is of no surprise to the reader, or Quirk, when he finds that the woman did not die of an embolism but of a hemorrhage after giving birth.
However, Quirk is carrying far too much baggage of his own to have any interest in rushing into the role of avenging angel, so even though he very quickly realizes that the cause of death is not as stated he has no wish to get involved, and even goes to some lengths to divert suspicion. However, he is inevitably drawn into the mystery that appears to implicate his own family and various pillars of the Dublin Catholic society, but his inquiries lead to trouble, not just for him but for Dolly who knew Christine, and turns up dead shortly after talking with Quirk.
Black's 1950s Dublin is a moody, atmospheric place where carthorses mingle with cars, the pubs are fugged up with smoke, girls take tea in hats, and the attitudes of society are dominated by the rigid dogma of the Catholic Church, but times are changing, as epitomized by Phoebe, the restless daughter of Mal and Sarah who is determined to make her own way and marry who she wishes, even if he is a Protestant.
Those who pick up Christine Falls looking for a page-turning thrill ride may find Black's style a little too contemplative for their tastes and the plot too straightforward, but those looking for a literary read with a criminal bent will find themselves well rewarded. As thriller writer Michael Dibdin, writing in The Guardian (UK), says: "It would be absurd to suggest that Banville writing as Black is better than Banville writing as Banville, but in a different and yet fascinatingly similar way he is every bit as good, and deserves to win a new, broader readership with this fine book. Crime writers have been moaning for years that their stuff never gets considered for the big literary awards; the possibility of competition from the other direction has been less discussed. If there's any justice, Banville should be able to add the CWA Gold Dagger to his heap of trophies, but I hope this doesn't start a trend. Life is hard enough for those of us who labour away down in the potboiler room without the toffs from the penthouse suites showing up and acting like they own the place."
This review was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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