On the left, the UK edition, published by Pan Macmillan is out now in the UK. The US edition from Henry Holt will be published in March 2007.
John Banville is the 2005 Man Booker winner for his novel “The Sea”.
With the crime fiction novel “Christine Falls” Banville has rebranded himself as author “Benjamin Black” and the Pan Macmillan site promises us “A compelling new crime series from the pen of Booker Prize winner John Banville .”
So what do crime fiction aficionados have to look forward to with “Christine Falls”?
In a nutshell: Following a hospital party and the intake of much alcohol, pathologist Quirke finds his way to the Pathology Department where he sees his eminent obstetrician brother-in-law apparently altering the file of a dead woman. His curiosity aroused, Quirke starts to make enquiries into the former life of this young woman; enquiries that shed light on activities which have been going on around him for some time, activities with which Quirke is not at all comfortable…
This novel is the start of a series featuring a pathologist but it has little resemblance to Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, if any. For starters, it is set in Dublin and Boston in the 1950s, so it’s more “cause of death on the death certificate” than Stryker saw usage. The 1950s setting is a good one too; and like Andrew Taylor with his Lydmouth series we see and feel the need to be human and have freedom, as we know now, but in a time of some hypocrisy and oppression. The Dublin setting, with its religious force and beliefs, doubles that feeling of oppression.
I think the essential premise of this novel is that of a journey, for both the protagonist Quirke and the reader. Nothing is shovelled into the first couple of chapters to tell us all about Quirke and his background. As Quirke’s journey sees him considering his past, reconsidering it and closely examining his family from a new point of view; we, the readers find out about Quirke on a drip feed throughout the novel.
Without letting on too much, which is difficult given the nature of the novel, Quirke is definitely crime fiction male protagonist territory: he has an unusual background; he has a commanding physical presence; he likes whisky, perhaps too much; he will let nothing lie; and he has a brooding nature. Remind you of anyone?
One thing’s for sure, I have not read any other crime fiction novel with this writing style, so I cannot say it’s like anyone else’s. Perhaps this is because we have a literary author crossing boundaries into crime fiction and re-branding his authorial name to do so. This is not the short and snappy prose normally associated with crime fiction; it’s lyrical and effluent in being so. But that doesn’t stop this novel being a page turner for a crime fiction reader. By the last 100 or so pages, I simply couldn’t wait to finish it.
One character, a hint of a bad egg from the starting blocks is slowly exposed as having a predisposition to anger and violence. The scenes concerning this individual build and build, even after you’ve thought the worst has already happened.
The main hook in this novel is how innocents are vulnerable and are treated. You simply want something good to come out this; you want a fair resolution and justice for the dead. The good perhaps, proves to be Quirke, but as described earlier, he comes with baggage…
I found this a greatly satisfying read when I’d finished it. It’s a classic tale of deception and misdirection, told through good plotting and excellent drip feeding of information. Just one word of caution to the crime fiction aficionados, though – it really isn’t your typical crime fiction read. Where you normally have an intercity ride, this is steam train with an accompanying tour guide. There is so much to see, if you choose to look, and in this case Banville/Black describes it for you. I loved the description about a man who was noted as not walking into a room directly, but who always slipped in through the doorway sideways, latterly becoming a man who entered the room “on the bias”. Other elongated descriptive pieces of prose, I eventually chose to skim when in the final pages…
It was good plotting with great characters, but I certainly believe that a harder line on editing may make Banville’s transition into crime fiction and journey to the top of the tree in that, more speedily successful.
This is a novel to read, certainly – it’s excellent crime fiction entertainment. This is an author to watch, certainly. But an author to scale the heights of the crime fiction genre and community? Most definitely yes, if the lyrical and literary prose is pared down.
I loved it, but think it would be better received in its target readership, had the prose been pared down. Do try it and let me know what you think. It certainly keeps you guessing, somewhat erroneously I suspect…