Thursday, 1 January 2009

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Despite having the personality of a granite mortuary slab, the physique of Shrek and a drink intake that would probably floor Shane MacGowan, Benjamin Black's anti-hero Quirke seems to have women falling into his bed without him even having to chat them up.
A nurse caring for him – after he is beaten up and is suffering from a broken leg – can't resist a quicky with him in his hospital bed. A recently widowed woman (his late father-in-laws younger wife) also impulsively tackles him without him having to woo her with chat-up lines and a date at a restaurant.
Maybe it is the number of cigarettes he smokes that makes him so attractive, although I don't remembering women throwing themselves at me just because I happened to be in the same room when I was a smoker.
But then Quirke doesn't just smoke, he breathes tobacco and there is hardly a page in this 380-page novel in which he isn't lighting up, stubbing out or inhaling heavily. There were times I felt like coughing loudly and waving my arms in the air and telling him 'do you mind, I'm trying to breath'.
The central premise of Christine Falls is that The Knights of St Patrick, a secretive Catholic society working in 1950s Ireland, is shipping the babies of young unmarried mothers to the US where they are put up for adoption.
Quirke, a Dublin-based pathologist, only becomes aware of the Knights when he accidently discovers his brother-in-law falsifying the details of a young woman (Christine Falls) who has just died during childbirth.
When he tries to investigate Quirke is threatened (and later badly assaulted) and a woman he speaks to is murdered. Sinister elements are at work trying to cover up the deeds of men who like to portray themselves as good upstanding Christians.
Quirke suspects that his brother-in-law, Mal, is up to his neck in these seedy goings on and despite being told by Mal to back off keeps trying to find out more.
There is ongoing rivalry between the two men. Quirke was rescued from an orphanage by Mal's father, a papal count and senior judge, and the two were brought up like brothers. They both went to Boston in the 1930s and married sisters Delia and Sarah. Quirke married Delia but he really loved Sarah but she married Mal.
Deliah died in child birth and Quirke succumbed to the demon drink but managed to recover, although given the amount of whiskey that he still puts away you wonder how he ever got up in the morning when he was really drinking.
From these elements Black manages to create a novel that carries you along but which never really seems to flow easily.
Black wants his readers to regard Quirke as an interesting anti-hero, the sort of person who women do simply strip off and throw themselves at. But while there is enough there to make Quirke – a tragic loner, betrayed by his adopted brother, shunned by his true love– relatively intriguing, somehow the characterisation doesn't really gel.
Similarly for a crime novel in which Quirke is the man who is unravelling the mystery he doesn't really do that much detective work. People tend to just tell him things and the plot moves on a bit and then he somehow guesses something else.
Never-the-less there is some great writing that is a pleasure to read even though it seems to be there simply because Black likes the sound of the words or the images they create rather than because they move the story forward. Not surprising given that Benjamin Black is an alter ego of Booker prizewinner John Banville
There were also some nice little literary vignettes thrown in, including a couple of the minor characters who seemed to be introduced purely to get the reader guessing who Black might be talking about.
The drunken playwright and novelist who was put in prison for republican activities when he was a teenager has more than a passing resemblance to Brendan Behan, while the drunken, bitter poet sitting in the corner of the pub screamed out to be recognised as Patrick Kavanagh.
Despite the criticisms there was enough going on in Christine Falls to make me want to head down the street in the morning and pick up its sequel, The Silver Swan.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

"People tend to just tell him things and the plot moves on a bit and then he somehow guesses something else.": exactly! That's what makes the "crime novel" genre a challenge for me to enjoy! And, I suppose, to propel Quirke into intelligent plots and among believable characters. The whole "Knights" episode seemed hurried up and left behind after a lot of intriguing build-up; it reminded me of all books Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" in how the disaffected antagonist sets up a revenge upon the meddler. Like Roth, a sophisticated attempt at the literary type, but parts of it still seemed too tidy.

I read both of Black's nearly back to back a few months ago; see my blog or Amazon US for my reactions. I liked the pace of "Silver Swan" much better. Quirke and crowd move more efficiently after their relationships had been established in "CF," although judging from reviewers amateur like me and professional in the media, their critical consensus appears to be tilted far more in favor of CF. Don't bother with the quickie serialization that was published separately last year under the BB pen-name; it's gotten terrible press! Thanks for the review, and I look forward to your take on the sequel.