My last post was a review of John Banville’s The Sea. Speaking after this novel had won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, Banville announced that his next book would be a detective story written under a pseudonym using ‘unadorned prose’. ‘It is a piece of craftwork,’ he said. ‘It is not an art book, it is completely different to my usual work.’ Christine Falls is that book.
So how has it turned out? Well for a start, I wouldn’t call it a detective story. It’s a mystery story about family secrets. It involves crime and violence, but while the main character, Quirke, does try and unravel the mystery, for much of the time he shows an almost perverse aversion to detecting anything. Does he, or does he not want to know? The story is set in the 1950s, mostly in Dublin, with an interlude in Boston. Quirke is a pathologist, but don’t start thinking Silent Witness or Waking the Dead; his profession sets events in motion, but after that, plays almost no part in the story. As a child he was plucked from an orphanage and brought up by Garret Griffin, a leading member of Dublin society. He and Garret’s son Malachy both studied Medicine, and married sisters they met in Boston. But Quirke’s wife died, and now his life seems one long drift into what amounts to alcoholism (though not so named). But why is Malachy lying about the cause of death of a young woman named Christine Falls? What happened to her baby? And why does violence erupt every time questions are asked about this?
As in most mystery stories, the main character finds there is a secret, and is prompted in some way to unravel it. Quirke’s motivation is unclear; he scarcely knows himself what is driving him. ‘Why was he persisting like this? What were they to him, Christine Falls, or Christine Falls’s bastard ….And yet he knew he could not leave it behind him, this dark and tangled business. He had some kind of duty, he owed some kind of debt, to whom, he was not sure’. This ‘wide and tangled web in which he had become enmeshed’ is important to him because of his own experience of abandonment, life in an orphanage and informal adoption. It has left him uncertain of his identity – though the writer never puts it like that. Rather, ‘It occurred to him that he was sick of being Quirke, but knew there was no one else he could be.’ A quirk of fate, perhaps. Banville has been praised for the ‘great psychological penetration’ of his earlier novels, and it is the picture of Quirke, immobilised psychologically – and at one point physically as well – rather than a story of detection that is at the heart of the novel. In two crucial situations, he chooses passivity – if choice is the right word. ‘Some day, he told himself with an almost vindictive satisfaction, someday he would suffer for this laxity, this laziness of spirit, this cowardice’. ‘Unfocussed anger’ is the other side of this coin. He wonders if it will be the condition of his life, ‘that he would have to keep bouncing along before it helplessly forever, like a piece of litter buffeted by an unceasing wind.’ His decision finally to act, rather than any result of that action – which is only implied – is the real climax of the book; seen as a detective story, it would have been left woefully incomplete.
You will see from what I have already quoted that Banville/Black’s aspiration to write ‘unadorned prose’ isn’t really achieved either. I guess he can’t help himself. For example: ‘There was the church with the white spire they had passed last night in the mist-hung darkness; today it looked ordinary and even a little sheepish, as if its ghostly nocturnal springing up were a prank it was ashamed to be reminded of in daylight’. Or: ’The wind was driving sleet like spittle against the window, and the smoke from the city’s chimneys no sooner appeared than it was blowsily dispersed.’ It is very effective writing, but hardly without ornamentation. Perhaps there is less embellishment than in his ‘art’ novels; it’s true that I didn’t have to read with a dictionary next to me, as I did with his previous book. But he will apparently never be other than a literary writer. Surely this is a good thing.
So is this a highly literary crime story, or a mainstream novel about a damaged man? Or is this a distinction not worth making? Banville implicitly makes it in his comparison of ‘art’ and ‘craft’. On the Benjamin Black web pages there is a somewhat precious mock interview between Banville and Black – read it here – in which Black claims ‘Your books think: mine look, look and report’. I don’t really know what this means in practice. I merely find the writing and the characterisation more convincing than the plot, whatever distinctions Banville makes.
There is no Banville web page, but you can read more about him here.