Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Benjamin Black's "Christine Falls": Book Review

"Benjamin Black"'s "Christine Falls": Book Review

I rarely open a mystery, but I've enjoyed most of John Banville's fiction (see my reviews on Amazon), so I came to this with high expectations. I wasn't disappointed but I wasn't elevated. Given that this is priest-ridden, dreary 1950s Dublin, I expected the gloomy mood would infuse the prose. However, it also permeates the plot. Now, while Banville-writing-as-Black certainly knows how to create powerful studies of characters caught in their own manipulations and machinations, the plodding pace of this novel, staying mainly upon Quirke, too often drifts into sameness and thickens into dullness.

Not for nothing does our protagonist feel that he's trudging along, so resigned to the weary beat he follows that he lures himself into acting like he's found rest in the long march itself, rather than its respite. While the eerie atmosphere of the autopsy room and the lambent light in McGonagle's pub show the author's ability to conjure up mid-century Dublin at best (or worst) in its somber moments, the orphanage scenes and those with the Scituate moss mansion's dwellers pale by comparison.

You feel as if Banville-Black's trying on an American setting and gingerly imagining it, rather than conveying it to us as a lived-in place. The American scenes with hard-bitten Cora (who reminds me of a figure from a James M. Cain thriller), timid Claire, and louche Andy-- while necessary to the intricate if fussy plotting-- also jar with much of the Irish texture of the story. The appearance of a key if minor figure from early in the narrative later in the Crawford household does appear too neat even in an Irish-faithful milieu where everyone knows everyone else, whether in Dublin or Boston.

That being said, the storyline-- however melancholy and rather under-imagined (I wanted more on the Knights, Costigan's thugs, and the whole rationale barely glimpsed of "the forcing school" that underlay the grand sinister scheme)-- does feature, as with all of Banville, moments of artistry that few writers can keep producing, at a quality level one book after another, and so long into their careers. Whether a simple contrast between time sharpening what space blurs at a distance, or the mindset of a man trapped in his own limbo, or the passage of light across the floor, Banville notes with precision what many authors would scatter.

My reviews of Banville always excerpt my favorite passage from each novel, so here's a sample from this "entertainment." Decay and deceit invade every page of this novel. Describing a character's uneasiness as Quirke teases out what Quirke believes early on would be the "hidden truth," we see how the fidgeting, the mannerisms, and the hesitations find a correlative in the fading atmosphere that tries to penetrate into the closed environs of the sheltering, hermetic pub. The author conjures up the feel of the place, and this corresponds to the interior within the man under observation by Quirke.

"Mal was kneading the knees of his trousers. He kept his eyes fixed unseeing on the table and the newspaper. 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 faint, trembling gold lozenge of light on the floor carpet beside where they sat." (50)

I immediately began "The Silver Swan," the sequel, moments after concluding my stint with Quirke's début appearance. I might add, so far, that Quirke and companions appear more vigorous, more three-dimensional, and more varied in their next evocation. The plot's livelier and the pace quickens considerably; I estimate that having worked out Quirke's reticence in "Christine Falls," the author's able to let Quirke and his established characters loose to expand into their roles and backstories. I hope that the energy and more complex narrative shifts in the latter book fulfill their promise. (Check back for my review!) Like Graham Greene, Banville may divide his serious novels from his whodunits, but they share a fascination with this moral: "We all have our own kinds of sin."

(Posted on Amazon US today: I've also reviewed there and this blog "Silver Swan" and "Elegy for April.")

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