Friday, August 17, 2007

The first "Quirke"

John Banville's first crime novel, Christine Falls (under the pseudonym Benjamin Black) has a number of things in common with Tana French's recent In the Woods. Both include Gothic elements, both are tightly wound and elegantly written stories that don't suggest much possibility for a sequel (though both do have forthcoming sequels). French's novel is more tightly plotted; Banville's has a good deal more plot than some of his other novels, as well as a somewhat more straightforward style. He packs a lot of elements from the mystery and crime tradition into the book: a Jim Thompson plot about a young drifter in the U.S., a Ross McDonald plot about a rich family spanning the Atlantic, a good deal of material drawn from the Magdalene scandal (which has already appeared in the work of other writers, including Ken Bruen), and a lot of depressing material about the broader interface between the Catholic Church, the poor, and the very rich. One thing that is surprisingly not important, after the early pages, is the profession of Quirke, Banville/Black's central character: unlike other fictional pathologists who are amateur or part-time detectives, Quirke only discovers one fact (although a big one) through his medical skills, and it's the fact that sets the rest of the book in motion. But after that, Quirke's job is only used for metaphorical purposes (his relation to the dead, versus his step-brother's profession as an obstetrician). Quirke is trying to find out why his step-brother has falsified the death certificate of a young woman, whose name the novel bears, and it leads to a dangerous network of Irish and American folks involved in the manipulation of orphans and mothers. Quirke is attacked, a woman who confides in him (partially) is murdered, and there are many revelations and events--perhaps too many, especially toward the end, when events seem less to carry the story forward than to eliminate characters who are getting int he way or to keep the moody atmosphere at its gloomy heights. The novel is set in the early 1950s, seemingly to take advantage of some aspects of Irish and American society in relation to the Church at that time. But the gloom and Gothicism seems well suited to the '50s, better perhaps than the now booming city of Dublin (though surely there are still many of the characteristics of his story that would still be relevant). It's a tightly packed, involving, beautifully written, and somehow not quite adequate crime novel. Banville's brother Vincent wrote a few detective stories that satisfy as such, though perhaps without the literary heft of the Benjamin Black tome. Banville isn't quite slumming in Christine Falls, but he's also not taking a full and focused advantage of the genre elements that he summons for this book. As with Tana French, I'm looking forward to the next Quirke book, partly to see how the trick of a sequel will come off, and partly to see if he's more tightly in control of the structures that he's borrowing from the nature and history of the crime novel in future efforts.

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