Another case of an overqualified author turning out a crackerjack murder mystery. Benjamin Black is a psuedonym of John Banville, the Irish poet and novelist. Which is why, I suppose, we get fabulous sentences like this: “Suddenly for him death had lost its terrifying glamour and become just another bit of the mundane business of life, although its last.” The irony — and there is a great deal of that quality in Christine Falls — is that the book’s protagonist Quirke is by trade a pathologist. It’s entirely appropriate that death should have held “terrifying glamour” for him and his disillusionment on this score is just one of the sad revelations that rain down on him. (I don’t remember, by the way, ever learning Quirke’s first name. It’s that kind of book and he’s that kind of character.)
Graceful writing is not the only strength here. The novel’s structure is both strong and neat. Looking back, I’m hard put to remember any extraneous characters or plot points. The setting is 1950s Ireland and Massachusetts, that Catholic territory that spanned the Atlantic, with money and people crossing back and forth easily, frequently. What Quirke discovers is traffic in something else again (no, not guns). The larger plot, with its deceptions and corruptions, mirrors Quirke’s relationships, not one of which is unchanged by the end of the narrative. Black is so good that even the walk-on characters are made complex and believable. The atmostphere, too, is very rich, whether we’re in a depressing Dublin tenement or the overheated conservatory at Moss Manor in Scituate, Mass. And though this is one of your darker tales, you can, if you choose to, permit yourself a flicker of hope at the end, as Quirke rouses himself from his drink-sodden regrets and sets about redressing some wrongs.
As a side note, the cover is brilliant, a trompe l’oeil conceit in a very dark green (for Ireland, right?) “peeling” back from a moody black and white photograph, with white scoring on the back as if the cover had been folded back. It suggests hard wear and nasty secrets. Totally appropriate.