If any novelist may be said to weigh his words before putting them down, that novelist is John Banville. Take the title of this novel, Christine Falls. The name “Christine” derives from “Christian,” meaning “follower of Christ.” The book is certainly populated with fallen Christians.
But what has this to do with John Banville? The author of Christine Falls is one Benjamin Black. Well, as the dust jacket informs us, “Benjamin Black” is the pen name chosen by Banville — who won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 — for what is described as his “debut crime novel.”
The operative word here is “novel. Crime does figure in, and there’s mystery aplenty, but if you’re looking for fast-paced excitement, look elsewhere. Christine Falls offers a subtler, deeper satisfaction than just finding out whodunit.
Banville has been quoted as saying how impressed he was to discover recently Georges Simenon’s psychological thrillers, and this novel compares quite favorably to Simenon’s best. Like the author of The Strangers in the House, Banville/Black knows how to make a scene palpable: “The sky was heavy with a seamless weight of putty-colored cloud that looked to be hardly higher than the rooftops of the houses on either side of the road, and flurries of heavy wet snow scudded before the wind.”
The protagonist here is a pathologist named Quirke — and again the name is telling: The earliest known use of “quirk (in 1565) meant “quibble, evasion,” and Quirke is nothing if not evasive. Quirke and a colleague of his, an obstetrician named Malachy Griffin (called Mal), were raised together after Griffin’s father, a prominent judge, rescued Quirke from an orphanage. A broad-chested giant of a man, Quirke has lived alone since his wife died during childbirth years before (his wife, Delia, was the sister of Mal’s wife, Sarah) and, while he has apparently moderated his drinking quite a bit, he still socks a good deal away on a fairly regular basis.
The book — set in the 1950s, mostly in Dublin but partly in Scituate, Massachusetts — opens with a nurse being given a baby to take to the United States. Next we meet Quirke as he visits his office at Holy Family Hospital late one night after a going-away party (for, as it happens, the nurse with the baby). Mal is there and nearby is the body of a young woman named Christine Falls. Quirke later discovers that a release form has been signed (but not by him) and the body has been sent from the hospital to the morgue. He has it brought back and finds that the cause of death on the release form — a pulmonary embolism — is incorrect. Christine Falls bled to death after giving birth.
Quirke also learns that Christine Falls worked for a while in the Griffin household, as did Dolly Moran, the old woman in whose house she was living when she died. He visits Dolly, who is later found cruelly murdered. Quirke himself is first warned, then savagely mugged by a pair of goons.
Nuns, priests and a lay group called the Knights of St. Patrick figure prominently and none too flatteringly. The Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1950s was notably authoritarian and secretive, it seems.
What Banville/Black excels in is not thrills, but chills. Christine Falls’ baby is placed in the care of a young couple, Claire and Andy Stafford. You know as soon as you meet Andy that he’s bad news, a slickly handsome, self-deluding little dirt ball. You know that because, thanks to Banville/Black, he gives you the creeps.
The same with the thugs who do a fandango on Quirke: “They had an air of jaunty relentlessness; they would stick at nothing. Early rage or hurt or unlovedness had hardened for them into a kind of indifference, a kind of tolerance, almost, and they would beat or maim or blind or kill without rancor, going about their workaday task methodically, thinking of something else.”
What’s scariest of all about Christine Falls is the atmosphere of moral claustrophobia enveloping it. This is, in a strange way, a religious novel. Not that there’s anything pious about it. This is religion as the Elizabethans understood and felt it — as personal drama of cosmic dimensions. So the key characters — Mal, Judge Griffin, and Josh Crawford (Mal and Quirke’s father-in-law) are by no means morally obtuse. It is Quirke who seems to lack a moral grounding. “How innocent was he?” he wonders to himself. “What right did he have to stand upon a height and look down upon” the others? It’s a good question.
“If I have apologies to make,” Judge Griffin tells Quirke, “it’s not to you I have to make them. Yes, I’ve sinned, and God will punish me for it — has already punished me. …”
Griffin doesn’t flinch a bit when Quirke retorts: “I envy your view of the world. … Sin and punishment — it must be fine to have everything so simple.”
As the judge tells him: “You’re a coldhearted bastard, Quirke. You always were. But at least you were honest about things, with certain notable exceptions. Don’t go spoiling your bad reputation now by turning into a hypocrite. … You never gave a second thought in your life to anyone but yourself.”
Christine Falls makes one disconcertingly aware that the Son of Man came to call sinners, not the just.