It's not the dead that seem strange to Quirke. It's the living. One night, after a few drinks at an office party, Quirke shuffles down into the morgue where he works and finds his brother-in-law, Malachy, altering a file he has no business even reading. Odd enough in itself to find Malachy there, but the next morning, when the haze has lifted, it looks an awful lot like his brother-in-law, the esteemed doctor, was in fact tampering with a corpse--and concealing the cause of death. It turns out the body belonged to a young woman named Christine Falls. And as Quirke reluctantly presses on toward the true facts behind her death, he comes up against some insidious--and very well-guarded--secrets of Dublin's high Catholic society, among them members of his own family.
Set in the 1950s, Christine Falls follows the consequences after pathologist Quirke, retreating quite drunk from a hospital party one night, encounters his brother-in-law, obstetrician Malachy Griffin, out of place, in his office, altering the findings in a report. From some subconscious depth, due to an intrinsic 'quirk' of personality, much like a snow-ball effect, Quirke becomes helplessly, uncharacteristically, ensnared in the circumstances of this particular case; the death of Christine Falls. The more he delves, the more his family becomes entangled in the investigation; and the deeper he delves, the further the convoluted familial relationships between so many impact; until a web of corruption of a society from Dublin to Boston becomes unravelled.
This is a sordid tale crammed with condemnable incidents – from the abject to the inexcusable – and with no character left unsoiled. The satisfaction is in the mundane but detailed observances and reactions the author deftly applies, to each situation and to all the participants, offering such interesting distinctions and descriptions that they fascinate and repulse simultaneously. There are times when the reader knows more than Quirke; times when Quirke is not at all forthcoming to the reader; and times, it must be said, that happenstances occur a little too neatly.
Amongst all this Benjamin Black masterfully builds the persona of Quirke, whose attributes and true character, so long buried beneath a whiskey bottle, reluctantly surface as Christine ‘falls’ into his domain; Quirke’s life is the real story, perhaps even crime, here. A big man, often uncomfortable in his surroundings, unable to fully reconcile his past, purposely disregarding much of it, his story remains unfinished; his ending to-date untidy, his indifference returning to haunt him in the bleakness of his world, a world very different from today.
Still, there is much to like about Quirke in this book and much more to narrate. As the crimes themselves are revealed so too is Mr Quirke. Who knows, maybe, in time we will even elicit his first name – telling, that omission of one word amongst a veritable feast of others. Perfect, a further mystery to unfold.
I think the fundamental flaw of this book is that the author failed to sufficiently convey the motivation behind the characters' actions. For example, there is Quirk, the heavy-drinking, brought-up-in-an-orphanage, pathologist who, we learn late in the book, contributed indirectly to the founding of the nefarious operation [trying not to give away one of the plot twists]. He feels compelled to investigate when he finds his brother-in-law falsifying the file of a recently deceased young woman, Christine Falls. But why?! He had never demonstrated passion or even a general interest in anything other than a stiff drink in his life so why was he suddenly sticking his nose into the business of the very powerful family that had unofficially adopted him out of the orphanage? And yet he doesn't collaborate with the police officer who clearly smells a rat. Issues with the Catholic Church? ...with the family who raised him? Could be but it's my supposition rather than something you can find between the covers of this book.
Another example: the person who received the diary recounting the circumstances under which Christine Falls died [again, trying not to give away too much] spends the entire novel acting as if (s)he knew nothing, which was not at all plausible given how shocking it was supposed to be. And then we find out this character had forgotten a decision that Quirk had made years prior, critical both for the storyline and for the characters, that it undermines everything (s)he did and said throughout the novel.
In summary, "Christine Falls" was a very disappointing first encounter with this author and I don't intend to read any of the sequels.
Christine Falls is set first in 1950s Ireland, but ends in Boston. Quirke is a compelling protagonist, although not one who is immediately likable. He drinks excessively, pursues his sister-in-law romantically, and seems to have made more than a few enemies over the years. Despite his faults, however, Quirke is a man who wants to right the wrongs and he continues to investigate the death of Christine even when it becomes apparent his own life may be in danger.
Benjamin Black is the pen name for John Banville whose literary novels have won numerous awards. In this noir thriller, Banville weaves a tight story of intrigue that had me turning the pages long after I should have been in bed asleep. Christine Falls is a mystery which could easily fit in the literary genre with its strong character development and haunting descriptions. This whodunit has another, deeper layer - that of family secrets which span decades and implicate the Catholic Church. As Banville weaves his story, the reader is steadily drawn into the characters’ relationships.
Readers who enjoy literary fiction as well as a gripping mystery, will be drawn to Christine Falls. I expected to like this novel, and I was not disappointed.
There are a wealth of fascinating characters in Christine Falls (more on that momentarily), but the atmosphere of the book is almost more compelling than the characters, or the underlying mystery (more on that as well).
Quirke is a pathologist in 1950s Dublin. It starts off feeling very much like an episode of CSI:Dublin. A mysterious death, a persistent pathologist. But not the clean, crisp, morally certain world of CSI:Miami, but rather the lonely, smoky atmosphere of forensics in what seems like a disintegrating, dilapidated world:
Quirke, still in his gown and green rubber apron, sat on a high stool by the big steel sink, smoking a cigarette and thinking. The evening outside was still light, he knew, but here in this windowless room that always reminded him of a vast, deep, emptied cistern it might have been the middle of the night. The cold tap in one of the sinks had an incurable slow drip, and a fluorescent bulb in the big multiple lamp over the dissecting table flickered and buzzed. In the harsh, grainy light the cadaver that had been Christine Falls lay on its back, the breast and belly opened wide like a carpet bag and its glistening innards on show.
And then there is the smoke. Everything smokes in this book. Quirke smokes. His niece smokes. The chimneys smoke. The fireplaces smoke. Of course the police smoke, but that is described with loving, almost intimate care:
Quirke finished his cigarette and Hackett offered another, and after the briefest of hesitations he took it. Smoke rolled along the top of the desk like a fog at night on the sea.
Even the nuns smoke:
Sister Stephanus sat motionless and stared at the hastily squashed cigarette butt, from which there poured upward a thin and sinuous thread of heaven-blue smoke.
By the time the book was over, I wanted to smoke. About the only thing that's more frequent than smoking is drinking - but they are usually inextricably linked. The book is dark and smoky, and most of the characters seem to have an ashen taste in their mouths, as the phrase goes. There are some wonderfully humorous moments, and the occasional respite from the darkness. But these are exceptions.
Black/Banville has created a protagonist worthy of more than just a genre novel. Quirke is rendered with precision, sympathy, and believability, even when he might not be the most sympathetic of characters at time. To my mind, he most resembles Martin Cruz Smith's redoubtable Arkady Renko. Quirke is incapable of turning off his almost irrational curiosity, even in the face of clear physical danger. And he seems congenitally unable to tell a lie to spare someone's feelings (perhaps even his own), even when it seems there's no chance the lie will be exposed. But one senses that this is not because he has moral qualms about lying - rather it seems to stem from pure obstinacy.
Class makes its presence felt in the novel - the Catholic / Protestant split is clear both in Dublin and Boston, and the economy class distinctions are on display as well. Dublin is wonderfully painted, compellingly so. Boston I found to be done reasonably well, but the scenes there did not hold my interest until well past midway of the book. As an evocation of time & place, the Boston scenes were good, but not in a class with some of the best books set in the area (by, say, Dennis Lehane or Robert B. Parker). But Dublin....now that was well done.
But the book does not feel like it's ultimately about class, or location, or even religion - rather, it seems a meditation on secrets, mistakes, and the past - the gripping tentacles that reach forward in time to drag us down. The mystery itself (this is after all at least in the form of noir mystery) - well, the surface mystery is not so hard to figure out - I won't spoil it, but I guessed the answer fairly early on in the book. The deeper mystery is harder to sniff out, and (at least for me) comes like a sucker punch in the gut.
Christine Falls was compelling reading. Superficially, it was genre - but like the best literature, it's about what makes people tick.
(A minor complaint - I received this book as part of the LibraryThing "Early Reviewers Program". The implication is that this program is for reviewing not-yet-released books. As it happens, this book has been out for some time - after writing this review I found that there is a NY Times book review written on this book from over a year ago, and the original copyright is from 2006. Abby confirmed that this is in fact a new edition of a book previously released in the UK. And in the end, who can complain about receiving a book of this quality for free?)
The pace of the story was very sedate and I found myself wondering "who cares?" through most of it. The mystery that is presented definitely takes the back seat to the main character's morose thoughts and preoccupations, which was rather unfortunate because I really couldn't bring myself to care about him. Nor could I sympathize with any of the secondary characters; I found most of them rather grating. Don't care about the mystery, don't care about the characters; why am I still reading this?
I imagine this might have been a better read had I gone into it with the clear expectation that it was going to be a character study and not a thriller. As it was, I was annoyed at having been roped in by a lie. I found the pace frustrating an the entire resolution very convoluted. I definitely won't be putting myself through the torture that would be the sequel.
Because the characters and the places are so excellent, really. The characters are all very well-done, are all out of the ordinary-- no cliche personality types here. When we get inside their heads-- and that's something about this book I didn't like, the merciless head-switching, often several times in the same scene, can get a little wearisome-- when we do get inside their heads, they are engaging and realistic. They were all capable of surprise and nothing they did seemed forced. It was the satisfaction of reading perfect characters, I think, that kept me going-- that and the job Banville did with the setting. Anyway, nothing to disappoint from the characters and setting aspects of his style.
Even though the mystery is very slow to develop, however, and even though there were no rewards for the attentive reader-- no way to feel as if you were figuring the plot out, anyway-- Banville managed to keep me feeling as if I were in SOME state of suspense, and I put that down entirely to his above-mentioned craft. That and the fact that he did allow himself a few plot twists, yes. They were pretty good ones.
Here's the thing, though: winner of the Man Booker Prize, like a hero, decides to write what he considers a piece of genre fiction. Good for him, I say! Breaking down the boundaries of the elitist literary establishment! As good as Chabon! Huzzah! But he goes and writes it under a PEN NAME, and then puts the fact that it IS a pen name right there in the text, no hiding it, in order to ALSO mention that he has won the Man Booker Prize. What exactly do you want, Banville? Do you want the secrecy of a pen name, the kind of cover that will allow you to go write commercial fiction despite the fact that you're supposed to be 'literary,' or do you want the plaudits and praise of a literary career? This market and these harsh establishments are not exactly going to want to give you both. The fact that you've written what amounts to a literary crime novel-- not a proper crime novel in itself, since it doesn't have a good enough plot, but not a proper literary novel either, since it's got this skeleton crime-plot sitting there-- is going to make it hard for people to know what to make of you. You're being MARKETED here in the hardback edition I have as a crime novelist, but you get your trade paperbacks printed like you're a literary novelist. So who is going to read you? Crime readers will be disappointed by your amateurish stab at trying to be 'gripping.' Literary readers are going to wonder why, when you've clearly got your chops down, you have stuck old Quirke and his conundrum into the find-what's-hidden formula that a crime novel should have. You can't make everyone happy, Banville!
Well, you can certainly try, and if more people gave it a good try then literary fiction would quit being so shitty and stop being almost exclusively about boring nonsense. There would be fewer books about small-town New England and more literature about, say fighter pilots! Or astronauts! Stuff, basically, that I would actually find interesting to read. That's the problem with the modern literary/genre fiction bifurcation: I don't like reading about boring stuff, so why would I want to read most of the literary fiction that's out there? But, simultaneously, I don't like reading shitty writing, so why would I want to read much of of the genre fiction that's out there? There's no happy medium, except for when people like Banville and Chabon try to bridge the gap by writing well about topics that have usually been considered the purview of genre writing. So keep it up, Banville, I say: get better at this and you could knock everyone flat. This is the kind of direction I want to see writers going in.
I began reading the book with the expectation of a crime drama/mystery but it quickly turned into character study. The interaction between people was very interesting and the dialog moved along at a good pace. However, I disliked most of the characters, and even Quirke, the "anti-hero," was barely agreeable. His rat terrier attitude toward the mystery was questionable, as well; why was he so interested in the possible crime in the first place? His career as a pathologist seemed very promising at the beginning -- CSI, anyone? -- but it had very little to do with the story.
Throughout the story, the theme of Catholic tyranny ran strong. Orphanages, a home for unwed mothers, convents and the nuns and priests themselves were constant targets. The Protestant versus Catholic issue was present, of course. Since the story was set mainly in 1950's Ireland, this was not a surprise, but I think Americans might not appreciate the deep-set religious enmity of some Irish that this represents.
The structure the author chose worked well for the book, jumping between two stories in very different locations with very distinct characters, tied together by a single thread. Without spoilers, I will say the two threads did eventually converge. The book was quite slow throughout the first three quarters for me -- I kept wondering when something was going to actually happen -- but the final stretch picked up.
The author has an incredible descriptive ability; I could almost smell the cigarette smoke that prevailed in each 'film noir' scene while the damp, chilly weather made me shiver. The atmosphere was often described in detail so exact that I could fully relate to the scene. This was the real strength of the book, in my opinion, and one I admire tremendously.
Overall, the book was not an enjoyable read for me. I found the themes depressing, the atmosphere dark, and the characters unlikable, and I must feel more empathy for characters to enjoy a story. The writing itself was wonderful, however, especially the "literary illustrations." I would definitely look for the author again, if not in this genre.
Rather than a mystery, I felt the book was much more of a character study, and the main character, Quirke with his drinking, secrets and isolation was a familiar one for this genre. Unfortunately, the women in the book were on the most part damaged, fragile and insecure. I did love the fact that Black wrote a very layered tale and, in classic mystery style, slowly bits were peeled back and revealed. I guess what was missing for me was an actual mystery.
In the long run although I enjoyed the original and creative writing in Christine Falls, I needed more than well turned phrases, and both the pacing and the plot felt a little flat.
What an interesting twist to come across Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. Interesting because Christine Falls is a mystery and Benjamin Black is the nom de plume of Booker award winning author John Banville. In 1981 Banville received the Booker (now the Man Booker) for Kepler. Set in the 16th century Kepler is an accounting of the life of the astronomer Johannes Kepler and his struggle to pursue his scientific discoveries in a world rampant with political intrigue and religious strife. Much more recently, in 2005, Banville received the Man Booker for the second time for The Sea, a strikingly different novel. Returning to the seaside village where as a young man he encountered a family that profoundly shaped him, a middle-aged man grieves the death of his wife. Both novels are intricate, layered and perhaps a little mannered.
Christine Falls has all the attributes of the Man Booker winning novels, but is an even greater departure in genre, style and tone. Successful mysteries must contain all of the staples: a suspicious death, an engaging detective, seemingly overwhelming odds against solving the crime and carefully sprinkled clues, like crumbs in the forest, eventually leading to the murderer. Imagine all of this being by accomplished by an author who brings the level of mystery writing to that of literature.
Setting is a key element of a good mystery and Dublin in the 1950s feels as atmospheric as Paris in the war years. Quirke, a pathologist, discovers his physician brother-in-law tampering with the body of a murder victim. Like all admirable, and often unwilling detectives, Quirke has a personal history and a set of circumstances that work against him and he pursues the truth despite the opposition of the Catholic Church and men in power in Dublin and in Irish circles in America.
Black’s writing is elegant and it powers a story line that takes hold early and doesn’t let go until the final pages. Characters are sharply drawn and react and interact in ways that make sense while still providing surprise and suspense. As a reader I experienced a satisfying mystery and a fine novel within the pages of one volume.
Unless Banville wins another award I am not likely to read another mainstream novel by him. But the good news is that Christine Falls is the first in a series of Quirke novels and I am eagerly awaiting the next additon. Oddly enough, and despite the recognition of the literary cognescenti, Benjamin Black is a much better writer than John Banville.
Banville's signature attention to the details of weather - passing clouds, changing light, the effect of mist, sleet, and cold weather - makes the book worth reading on its own. Set largely in 1950's Dublin, there is a conviviality in the indoor scenes which comes largely from the contrast to the weather outdoors. The main character, Quirke, is a pathologist who stumbles onto a plot involving the distribution of unwanted orphans to Boston. The scheme involves his close family, and he must decide whether or not to proceed, as he is warned off at all levels.
While the story is indeed plot driven, it it not at the expense of Banville's exquisite attention to descriptive detail, his evocation of place, his uncanny ability to conjure up a scene and a mood through description of smells. The ending of the story is frenetic, and somewhat improbable, but this is still a book to be savored and enjoyed.
Black’s strengths lie with his characters. They seemed realistic, even if I was left questioning some of the motives driving them. He did an excellent job spreading the back story throughout the novel. Unfortunately, I found the back story to be more interesting than the action supposedly driving this book.
The weakness of Christine Falls, in my opinion, is the plot. I love the mystery genre, so perhaps my expectations were a bit formulaic. I saw several of the surprise twists coming a mile away, and I was confused about what the mystery actually was. As I neared the end of the book, I found myself skipping much of the literary descriptions in order to get to the plot. I found the big reveal to be anti-climatic. The discovery may have been shocking in 1950s Dublin, but it didn’t do much for me.
Set in 1950's Ireland this wasn't quite clear until a bit into the story this isn't the best mystery novel I've read. It is very evocative of Ireland before the boom and it's interesting in some ways.
It is written by John Banville and really isn't much of a change from his normal pace. If you enjoy John Banville it would be a good read but I'm not really a John Banville fan. Truth be told I had left the book in work over the easter weekend and although I wasn't very far away from work when I realised it I didn't go back to collect it even though I was only about 150 pages from the end.
It's a book that's neither fish nor fowl, neither a usual John Banville nor a true murder mystery.
Benjamin Black is the pen name of John Banville. As Black, he seems intrigued by the secrets bound up in family ties (as in The Lemur). This was a very well-written book and a damn good noir mystery.
The beginning of the book was excellent, the ending was only so-so, and the mystery itself was not very difficult. But I liked the fact that the main character had some real flaws and wasn't invincible. I also liked that he was persistent. I wonder if Quirke might have solved the mystery sooner if it didn't involve his family. Sometimes people see so much of what we want to see that we don't see what's really there.
I came in to this novel expecting a mystery, especially since it's a "debut crime novel", but it turns out that debut crime novels aren't necessarily mysteries, and there isn't any particular puzzle to solve.
So what is there? Well, just a bunch of loosely related people doing a bunch of loosely related things, and from this we are supposed to, I think, induct great insights into the Human Condition.
I loved Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man, and one of the reasons is how real Death expects people to be. OH. DRAMA. he says dismissively, when another character poses tragically against a backdrop. It kind of sums up what I think of this book. I don't want to add in a bunch of spoilers for the plot, but suffice it to say that if the characters would just act sensibly, there wouldn't have been much of a book. Are all of we human beings really terribly driven by subconscious compulsions to self-destructive behavior? I don't think I am. Now, one or maybe two characters in a book that are psychotic I can maybe buy into, but in this one I feel like every character is nuts. Maybe that's just the way people are in Dublin. So: read it if you like good, plain writing. Read it if you like good characters and good pacing. But keep it in mind: Sensible people just don't act like this.
I found Christine Falls very riveting and will be looking for more installments in Quirke's story.
Throughout the book there are reminders that Black loves language. There is a bus horn “parping” and scenes are rendered vividly, small details giving texture, but there is enough left unexplored in each scene to give the reader a chance think about what is happening. The wonderful stylish writing is so intense that the reader can’t help but be aware of it and be conscious that here is the writer making the atmosphere of guilt and secrets as dark as the rain washed night streets. There is a sort of elegance to the writing that make this mystery more than a guilty pleasure.
I think that Banville/Black must have had a great time writing this book. Sometimes the delight is so evident that the reader can’t help but appreciate the evidence of craftsmanship. It is more than just a well plotted mystery; this is a great pungent way to mark the passing of the society ruled by the Church and the arrival of a society with a more secular focus. The older women are trapped and the younger women are finding their way out, but not easily and not without woe.
The narrator Quirke, a great name by the way, is a large lumbering man who is the rock around which these changes swirl. He does not oppose them, exactly and he does not mourn the passing of a way of life that made him find his peace in whiskey. As a pathologist, he is by profession an observer, and in this book his observations are both acute and confused depending on what he wants to acknowledge, but he finds no comfortable answers to his own history and he has a meagre resolution at the end but he is, as one character puts it, “a good man if only he knew it.”
Man Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, here writing as Benjamin Black, offers up a cleverly plotted if leisurely crime novel written in dark, elegant prose that is an absolute pleasure to read. But beyond the beautiful writing, a big satisfaction of the book comes from getting to know the laconic Quirke, a great bear of a man shambling through the wreckage of his life.
Christine Falls is the first of a Quirke series, which is good news for mystery readers who like their UK detectives brooding loners with inner demons. (Think a more morose Morse, a dourer Dalgliesh.) Quirke joins their ranks as a misfit crimesolver with scruples…and secrets.