I’m a former avid reader of mystery novels who has fallen out of the habit in recent years. I occasionally check out new series, but most of them fall short of my expectations. (It probably doesn’t help that I compare them all to the work of Dorothy Sayers and Laurie King. Who could live up to that?) In reading mysteries, detective stories in particular, I look for an interesting and reasonably likable main character—usually one who is brilliant but still human. The side characters should be well-developed people who seem to have a life apart from the main character, even if readers are not privy to the details. I need to feel that the author is not holding back key pieces of information and that I’ve seen the same clues that the detective has seen, even if I’m not clever enough to understand their significance. So I’m a tough customer when it comes to detective fiction. Several popular series (Maisie Dobbs and The Number One Ladies Detective Agency being two examples) haven’t quite worked for me because they failed to live up to one or more of these criteria.
Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (pen name for John Banville) piqued my curiosity because it, like the Kate Atkinson books Jenny recently reviewed, is a mystery novel by someone more well known for literary fiction. Banville’s previous novels have shown up on numerous prize lists, and he won the Booker for The Sea in 2005. Now I’m no genre snob; I fully believe that genre-based writers can be every bit as talented and inventive as their counterparts in straight literary fiction, but it occurs to me that someone who has made a name for him- or herself outside genre fiction might be especially willing to step beyond the conventions and limitations of genre.
I don’t know that Black/Banville does much flouting of mystery conventions, but he does write a good solid novel that meets all my criteria for an enjoyable mystery. The story begins when the main character, Quirke, a pathologist in 1950s Dublin, discovers Malachy, his adopted brother (and brother-in-law—the two men married sisters), falsifying the record of the death of a young woman named Christine Falls. Before long, it becomes clear that someone doesn’t want Quirke asking questions about this young woman. There’s a murder, an attack, and many complications, some of which are connected Quirke’s personal life, which involves some heavy drinking and his not-entirely-dead love for Malachy’s wife, Sarah.
A parallel thread involves a newborn infant named Christine who is brought to Boston by a nurse from Quirke’s hospital and is given to a young Irish-Catholic couple, not for adoption but for them to raise with the advice of the orphanage that made the arrangements. The wife, Claire, falls in love with the baby immediately, but her oh-so-virile husband Andy resents the intrusion. The results are not good.
Because of these parallel stories, readers are actually ahead of Quirke for much of the book. To some extent, this reduces the number of suprising revelations along the way, but at least there’s no withholding of key information so the detective can reveal his cleverness at the end. The tension that builds during the novel is more psychological than physical, and only rarely do the main characters appear to be in physical danger. Still, psychological danger is in a way even scarier—and the impact more troubling.
The plot does hinge on coincidence more than I might like, but it’s not a major problem, and the way it all ties together makes sense. Even though Quirke’s investigation unearths some shady practices among people who are running various Catholic charities, Black doesn’t fall into the tiresome trap of treating the whole church as corrupt. Most of the loose ends in the mystery get tied up, and the characters are left with plenty of opportunties for growth in future novels. I look forward to reading the next Quirke novel, The Silver Swan, to see what happens to them next.