pulp (2007-02)

Pulp Noir

Banville’s newest is dark, pristine

by Jonathan B. Frey

In John Banville’s 1993 novel Ghosts , the narrator describes the work of a 17th-century painter, Jean Vaublin: “There is a mystery here, not only in Le monde d’or , that last and most enigmatic work; something is missing, something is deliberately not being said. Yet I think it is this very reticence that lends his pictures their peculiar power. He is the painter of absences, of endings. His scenes all seem to hover on the point of vanishing. How clear and yet far-off and evanescent everything is, as if seen by someone on his deathbed who has lifted himself up to the window at twilight to look out a last time on a world that he is losing.”

While Jean Vaublin is in fact fictional (the name an anagrammatic play on Banville’s), the description of his painting serves to summarize as well as to exemplify Banville’s writing: elliptical, allusional (in this case self-referencing, about a painter named after the author), melancholic, and reticent. These tendencies—as well as an affection for wholly untrustworthy narrators and all-pervading ambiguity, among other anti-novelistic tics—have characterized nearly all of Banville’s books, up to and including The Sea , the “work of art” (Banville’s words) that won the 2005 Man Booker prize. However, his follow-up, entitled Christine Falls (Picador, £13; Holt, $25) is a departure.

Fittingly, as if mapping his literary style to the business of publishing, the follow-up is not technically authored by him, but by Benjamin Black, a pseudonym. More curiously, the association between the two is clearly provided in the author bio: “Benjamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed author John Banville….” Precisely what is being achieved by such a revelation, other than perhaps merely conceding to an already publicly leaked fact, is perhaps as mysterious as the motivation behind the book itself. For Christine Falls is not exactly a Banville book in the sense described above, yet nevertheless the connections can be detected, “clear yet far-off.”

Essentially a detective story, perhaps the first in a series by Benjamin Black, the novel’s title is the name of an otherwise anonymous young woman lying on a morgue trolley at Holy Family Hospital, Dublin, Ireland, early in the 1950s. Her corpse becomes of singular interest when the pathologist Quirke discovers his brother, Mal, an obstetrician in the same hospital, modifying her death certificate. Furthermore, several days later—after Quirke has forgotten about Christine (“she was, after all, only another cadaver”)—Mal visits Quirke at his pub and implores him not to discuss the woman.

Apparently, “the girl” had worked for Mal as a housekeeper, but was subsequently fired. This detail compels Quirke to conduct an autopsy revealing that her death was not from pulmonary embolism, as her death certificate reports. By pulling this thread the story unravels, leading beyond the immediate death (rather prosaic in itself) and uncovering a far greater conspiracy, extending beyond Dublin and across the Atlantic.

As the mystery unfolds, details are parsed about Quirke, the main protagonist and sleuth in this distinctly noirish tale (the Benjamin Black pseudonym is not coincidental). Now “in the foothills of his forties,” Quirke is an orphan and widower and, perhaps predictably given his creator’s tendencies, often given to dark rumination: “It sometimes seemed to him that he favoured dead bodies over living ones. Yes, he harboured a sort of admiration for cadavers, those wax-skinned, soft, suddenly ceased machines. They were perfected, in their way, no matter how damaged or decayed, and fully as impressive as any an ancient marble. He suspected, too, that he was becoming more and more like them, that he was even in some way becoming one of them.”

Moreover, Quirke is a reluctant gumshoe, progressing in his investigations primarily in response to the increasingly aggressive behavior of other parties, more cornered into resolving Falls’ death as driven by his own stubbornness and a faint sense that “he had some kind of duty, he owed some kind of debt; to whom, he was not sure.” This debt, Christine Falls’ death, and the larger crime gradually emerge against a brooding climate of dark clouds, fog, and rain, interspersed with a host of fully-realized characters, both seedy and privileged.

If Christine Falls demonstrates that Banville can successfully harness ambiguity and melancholy in service of a suspenseful narrative, his penchant for allusive naming, while not universal, can be frequent enough to be distracting: Quirke himself is indeed quirky; his brother Mal, short for Malachy, is badness appropriately named; Mal’s daughter Phoebe is pure; Dolly, another of the plot’s victims, a floozy; Christine Falls a woman fallen; etc. But this is a small point in a crime novel that is both elevated and engaging, even when raising a question it fails wholly to answer: the motivation behind why a successful and literary art-devoted author would pen it.