Christine Falls: A Novel – Benjamin Black

Christine Falls

At last, some time to return to my much neglected blog. I’ve been reading and critiquing manuscripts from my novel writing class, travelling, studying and working, and there’s been little time for anything else.

But I did find time to read a couple of other novels on holidays. In the spirit of breaking out of my usual genre, I tried a crime novel. Christine Falls: A Novel is the first of a series of crime stories featuring Dublin pathologist Quirke Griffin. Benjamin Black is more famously known as Booker prize winning literary novelist John Banville.

Christine Falls is the first of his Quirke novels, which was so well received that he’s written another six of them but this is the first John Banville novel I’ve read.

Quirke Griffin, a pathologist working in 1950s Dublin, discovers after a few drinks at an office party, his adoptive brother Malachy, a prominent obstetrician, altering an autopsy file in the morgue.

The autopsy concerns Christine Falls, a young woman who died in childbirth. It’s a case that haunts Quirke, whose own wife died the same way. Quirke and Malachy have an uneasy relationship. Quirke was adopted from an orphanage but always the favoured son of his adoptive father prominent Judge Griffin. And there’s also tension between the two brothers who have married sisters – Quirke’s wife Delia is now dead but Sarah, the sister he always loved, is unhappily married to his brother.

Quirke can’t let go of the sense of unease over what his brother was up to, and it leads him from the house where Christine Falls died and the woman who last saw her alive to meetings with his brother and father and a growing puzzlement over their involvement in her death. Meanwhile, a parallel story is playing out as Brenda Rutledge, a Dublin nurse is charged with taking a baby by boat to Boston where it is subsequently adopted out to a young couple. Its clear that something shady is going on with the Catholic church and babies, but not what.

All of the players will come together in a closely played out series of explosive scenes leading eventually to the climax and surprising revelation in the denouement.

This is a crime novel for patient readers who like slow revelations and a subtly building menace. Black’s literary style is evident in his fresh, unique writing that is uncommon in crime novels, such as:

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..

And then my favourite, the Boston priest who was ‘potato pale’.

But in most other ways, its a typical crime story. Quirke drinks and smokes too much and screws up his personal relationships. There’s even a scene when a sinister man warns Quirke off asking further questions, ‘that some things are best forgotten, best left alone‘. How each of the different narrative strands relates to each other is hinted at but never clear until the end.

The sense of menace reaches a crescendo as one after the other, each narrative strand reaches a cluster of climaxes without the reader being sure what will happen next.

The characterisation in this story is strong but the highlight for me was the beautiful, fresh imagery. The pace was slow for a crime novel, but was more than made up for by the domino-like climax. Well worth reading some more of Quirke.