Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Christine Falls was written by Benjamin Black, pen name of Man Booker Prize winner, John Banville. It begins a tad awkward with Mr. Banville not exactly sure-footed in his use of third person omniscient point-of-view. Early on, the author switches between characters’ POV’s - sometimes mid-paragraph. The effect is jarring and off-putting. Eventually the author settles down and, for the most part, effectively uses a version of the more limited third person POV.

Quirke, the wonderfully complex and conflicted main character, is a coroner in 1950’s Ireland. As a child, he was rescued from a Catholic orphanage by a corrupt judge, and raised alongside Judge Griffin’s own biological son, Mal. That the judge favors the foster child over his own flesh and blood is just one cause for resentment among many between the two men. Mal is a prominent OB-GYN. His involvement in the cover-up of the death of pregnant Christine Falls, and his “brother” Quirke’s suspicion of him as the girl’s killer are the crux of the matter.

What will Quirke do with what he believes to be the truth about what happened? And what of the newly appointed Papal Lord, Judge Griffin’s role in the church- sanctioned baby smuggling scheme that the coroner unearths? Will Quirke rat on the man who provided him with a home, love and every opportunity that money can buy?

The best scenes in this book are the one’s that take place in the morgue. Mr. Banville expertly captures this dark and nether word, and accurately portrays sort of the characters whose sensibility allows them to easily commune with the dead.The action switches to Irish Catholic Boston where the author ventures deep into Lehane territory, a place where deeply flawed characters at cross purposes are bound to each other by debts and favors owed.

Like any master of suspense, Mr. Banville lets the tension build by letting exquisite details play out, knowing that the anticipation of violence is far more frightening than the thing itself; in one scene, the action cuts away just as the thugs move in for the kill, and the author let’s the reader do the work – to use his or her own imagination to enact violence that is far more personally horrifying than any Mr. Banville could portray. Any character deemed sympathetic is killed or hurt “off camera” - so to speak; an interesting choice for a new crime writer to make. The only extreme violent assault that is actively shown is that of the villain - Andy Stafford -when he has the crap beat out of him. In this bar room brawl scene, Banville perfectly captures the “zero state” of the sociopath – the moment just before the Andy lashes out at the man in the bar who dared insult him:

“A heave of suppressed merriment passed along the table. Andy looked at the floor, his lips pursed, then sauntered forward, carrying his beer glass. He stopped in front of McCoy, who was wearing a checked lumberjack shirt and denim overalls. Andy had gone chill all over, as if he was breaking out in a cold sweat, although his skin was dry. It was a familiar feeling; there was almost a kind of joy in it, and a kind of happy dread that he could not have explained. 'Better
watch your mouth, pal.'"

About a third of the way through the novel, we’re introduced Andy, an edgy American truck driver. Both he and his tragically besotted wife, Claire, are pivotal characters; introducing them so late in the game slows down the forward momentum of the book. But the conflict surrounding Andy builds quickly. Childless Claire opts to take in a foster child – Christine Fall’s smuggled baby. Andy’s resentment and malevolence toward the infant is palpable, and I held my breath every time Andy went anywhere the doomed child.

Later, when the baby dies, Andy has the sociopath’s rationalization of his actions – the baby was crying – and denial of guilt – the child must have a flaw in its brain that made it die when violently shaken. As a student of forensic psychology, I can attest that Mr. Banville has a pitch-perfect ear when it comes to psychopathy.

However, like a lot of male writer’s, his portrayal of woman leans toward the clich├ęd and one dimensional, most of the women in this book are weak, tearful, victimized and put-upon. There were a couple of sex scenes when some randy gals gleefully jumped into bed with men they barely knew. I rolled my eyes and moved on.

At best, the plot is convoluted. With it built around the corruption and skullduggery of the Catholic Church, I half expected Silas from The Da Vinci Code to pop out of the woodwork. I never quite bought the premise of babies born to un-wed Irish Catholic girls being smuggled into the US, farmed out into temporary foster care with the expectation that when the children were grown, they’d become priests and nuns; thus fulfilling their obligation to the church-run orphanage. Was there are shortage of priests and nuns in the 1960’s? I doubt it. That this would be the set up of a Byzantine murder plot challenged this reader’s suspension of disbelief.

In spite of these flaws it is pathologist Quirke’s inner conflict over betraying the very people he owes and loves that makes Christine Falls a decent read. According to the jacket flap, we’re to see more of Quirke for this book is the start of what promises to be a psychological and character driven crime series.

Am I the only one who noticed that the Christine Falls book cover is nearly identical to A Woman in Berlin? – a book I highly recommend.