When Christine Falls appeared as a 2007 hardcover, it was hailed as a “genre jumper”, a hotly contested term for a book doing just that, in this case, attracting readers normally not drawn to crime novels. Recent fine examples of the jump trend include Natsuo Kirino’s Out, Kate Atkinsons’s Case Histories and its sequel, One Good Turn.
That Benjamin Black is Booker winner John Banville’s alter ego certainly assisted in this leap: yes, Christine Falls is a whodunit, but a literary one, meaning those who abide by snobby genre rules could read without guilt.
Set in 1950s Ireland, Christine Falls is the story of Quirke (no first name), a pathologist who becomes curious about the eponymously-named corpse that appears in his lab, a young woman whose records have been tampered with by Dr. Malachy “Mal” Griffin, Quirke’s brother by adoption and brother-in-law by marriage: Mal married Sarah, Quirke, Sarah’s sister Delia. Delia died 20 years ago, in childbirth. Quirke never remarried: he is the classic suffering loner, an orphan before being plucked from his abysmal childhood by Mal’s father, Judge Garrett Griffin.
Orphan, widower, pathologist, in love with Sarah Griffin all these years, on barely nodding terms with jealous Mal, who knows his father, the Honorable Judge Garrett griffin, loves Quirke more. Could these characters be more predictable? Well, Sarah has dizzy spells, “turns”, cannot deal with the snotty servants, and in general quails when the going gets rough. Sarah and Mal have a daughter, naïve, pretty little Phoebe. Phoebe wants, heaven help us, to marry a Protestant.
If these names aren’t annoying enough, there are Quirke’s assistants in the path lab, Wilkins, and “the Jew Sinclair”. The Jew Sinclair? I’m a Jew. We’re never named Sinclair. Ever.
Never mind. Enter Nurse Ruttledge, on a boat from Ireland to Boston, with orphaned infant Christine in tow. Little Christine, whose parentage is hushed up, goes to a young couple, Claire and Andy Stafford. Nervous, fragile Claire is besotted. Andy, a nasty piece of work, is far less so, and ends up making it with the older woman downstairs, Cora, the “homely but hungry for it” menopausal stereotype straight outta Bukowski.
The clues fall thick and fast, many predictably obvious, others red herrings resolving neatly at the end. Initially, the book seems Dostoyevskian in the many characters thrown at the reader, but a wide circle of players is finally established, implicating the Catholic Church, some bad guys with God complexes, an orphanage run by a Boston Irish nun who puts the up in uptight, and Sarah’s father, the wealthy, ailing Josh Crawford. Mal is tied up in this mess, as is Judge Garrett.
As Quirke pushes forward, we are unsurprised to learn he is no saint himself. This noble loner drinks too much and comported himself badly after Delia died. But Banville’s characterizations are so shallow—malo Mal, the wise judge with a secret, the annoyingly frail Sarah and utterly stupid Phoebe—that it’s difficult to feel for any of these people.
The plot takes time working up momentum, turning out to be what people call a good yarn. There’s lots of rain, fog, and shadowy mists, as if a sunny day might wreck the storyline. Even worse is what I’ll call the “hand problem”. The people in Christine Falls are constantly reaching out to touch another character, then thinking the better of it and pulling back. They spread their hands on tables, steering wheels, and bars. They tap their foreheads. Midway through the book I began an unscientific count, came up with 14 instances of hands doing something inessential. Hello, editorial?
When the reader is constantly tripping over names, hands, and statements like “Sarah hated the smell of hospitals,” (Who likes it?) it’s difficult to settle in and enjoy the story. I didn’t. But reviewing is ultimately a matter of opinion, and I cannot, in fairness, dismiss Falls because I disliked it. The plot is well-constructed, rolling along smoothly until it’s tightly balled up, every little thread knotted and tied off.
Lovers of crime novels may be better able to put aside those aspects of Falls that bothered me, and luckily for them, Quirke has a future in his very own series. Surely the film isn’t far behind.