Benjamin Black's Christine Falls.

Reading between the lines.
March 12 2007 2:11 PM

Mysteries of Identity

John Banville's alter ego.

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Benjamin Black's debut thriller is, as its genre demands, littered with clues. But the most revealing pieces of evidence are not the ones that point toward the dark crimes in Christine Falls, but the ones that help unmask Mr. Black. Early in the novel, for example, two characters meet in the sort of seedy taproom where genre characters often consort. "The evening sun had found a chink somewhere at the top of the painted-over window at the front of the bar and was depositing a fat, trembling gold lozenge of light on the floor carpet beside where they sat." There's a striking similarity here to, say, "the open doorway from which a fat slab of sunlight lay fallen at our feet" in The Sea or "the thick drop of sunlight [that] seethed in a glass paperweight" in The Untouchable. Even if the flap copy of Christine Falls didn't, the sunlight—and the sky and the water—would have given John Banville away instantly.

Two years ago, Banville taunted the London literary world in his acceptance speech for the Booker Prize for The Sea, remarking that "it was nice to see a work of art" win the prize ("for a change" was the obvious implication). He has said repeatedly in interviews that Christine Falls, his first effort since then, is not such a work of art but a matter of mere craftsmanship. Christine Falls, a noir exercise set mostly in 1950s Dublin, introduces Dr. Quirke, a massively built and brusquely amiable pathologist in a Catholic hospital. Orphaned at birth, he grew up in a boys' home until the wealthy and prominent Judge Garret Griffin took him in and raised him as a brother to his son, Malachy. Quirke and Malachy, an obstetrician, spent a year of their medical training in Boston in the early '30s, where they met and married the well-heeled Crawford sisters. Quirke had been in love with Sarah Crawford but ended up, for reasons we eventually discover, with her sister, Delia. Delia died in childbirth soon after returning to Ireland, and she continues to haunt the tortured Quirke.

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As the story opens, Quirke totters out of a party to find Malachy falsifying a death record for a poor domestic named Christine Falls, who died under mysterious circumstances. In the manner of all vexed, yet ambivalently duty-bound, bystanders in novels like these, Quirke begins to stick his nose where he is nastily assured it does not belong. He eventually uncovers the usual sort of vast criminal conspiracy: powerful men, hired goons, trans-Atlantic baby-smuggling, and so on. The rafters and joists of this novel have been picked up ready-made, but the filigreed ironwork of the sentences betrays Banville's precision. In a stock bar-fight scene, one character smashes a beer bottle. He refrains from "brandishing" it, however, and instead he thrusts "the crown of jagged spikes against the side of the fat man's fat soft throat. The quiet spread outward from the table like fast, running ripples."

Despite sentences like those, in the signature style of his previous novels, Banville has decided to dramatize the difference between this book and its predecessors with a halfhearted nom de plume. But what is the point of taking on a pseudonym only to identify it as such immediately? And what are we to make of the simplistic art/craft distinction he has used to defend this noir effort? One suspects that Banville, like the archly unreliable poet-madmen who have narrated his previous novels for almost 20 years, is playing games with us.

Banville has invoked, by way of explanation, late Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, who divided his few-hundred books into two categories: those starring the clever Inspector Maigret, and those he called the romans durs, the hard novels, which tend to feature stolid petit-bourgeois protagonists thrown into demimondes of violent intrigue. The difference between a Maigret novel and a romans durs, as Luc Sante has pointed out, is between the moral consolations of solved crime and the blank injustice of existentialism. Banville has mentioned that Christine Falls is an attempt to write such a romans durs himself.