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Friday, March 27, 2009

Benjamin Black's "Dark" Introduction to Quirke Series

Christine Falls was written by John Banville under the pen name of Benjamin Black and was both a Finalist for the 2007 Macavity Award for Best Novel and the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel. In the book, we are introduced to an alcoholic pathologist working during the 1950s in Dublin by name of Quirke Griffin. The multi-layered plot revolves around Griffin's family which over many years, it turns out, have quietly forced hapless young women to give up their children to an "adoption" scheme intended to be a pipeline to support the growth of the clergy in America.

The pen name "Black" accurately, in my view, conveys the dark nature of the book. There is first of all the grim/dreary tone, the dank atmosphere, created by Banville's incredibly skillful use of words. Even the name given to Quirke's step brother is Malachy, Mal for short. The second contributor is the nature of sin and evil that lies heavy across the pages and contributes to the dark feel of the book. For example, a casual reference to a 50's song by The Ink Spots, "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," is not so casual an inclusion by the author; Quirke and his family are filled with lies. In fact, by the end of the book it is hard to be sure the whole truth about the family has been revealed.

Quirke's sister-in-law asks: "Aren't people always supposed to turn to God in desperation?" Again, this early comment proves to be prophetic of part of the motivation for the protagonists of the book. For at the end, we hear one of the protagonists say, "The only thing good about old age is that it gives you the opportunity to even up the balance. Between the bad and the good, I mean." Yet the means is misguided so that the good is drowned by the bad: "We decide!" the other protagonist declares. "It's God's work we're doing!" to which Quirke replies, "So you're the judge and jury... you're God himself."

Another contribution to what I have called "dark" is the constant sense of foreboding. It is contained in the warnings that Quirke receives from seemingly everyone as he tries to sort out the reason for the death of a young woman, Christine Falls, who appeared on the slab of his pathologists' table, and whose file is at first mysteriously altered and then stolen. The warnings are cryptic like this from a young nun: "Watch out for yourself. There are people--there are people who are not what they seem, who are more than they seem."

I find it difficult to say whether I "liked" this book. I had a little trouble following the story at first. My first impression, that the prologue occurred years before the events in chapter one were completely wrong, but I missed the clues. OK, but I feel this error was exacerbated by the author's frequently reference in the beginning to events that occurred 25 years prior. However, once passed the first few chapters, I found that I was truly drawn into it. It was the dark sense of foreboding that pulled me along, and not any special admiration for the protagonist.

Chapter One ends with a series of questions about a photograph on Quirke's mantle. Where was it? Where? And who had been behind the camera? Questions like this pulled me along, but honestly, I don't think the answer to the last question is ever answered.

I just came back from the discussion of this book with others who made up this morning's gathering of The Mystery Book Club. I took a poll to see how everyone rated the book on a scale of 1 to 100. (See rating sheet.) Here were the results: 23, 45, 50, 57, 75, 72, 82, 81, 85. My own rating came to 76. In general these tend to be low scores for the group. It was also a much wider spread of feeling, showing less consensus than normal.

I think this is one of those books where a second reading can help to bring out a lot of subtle clues, things that make the book's coherence a lot plainer. The problem is, for me, the overload of cynicism and fatalism in the book does not really invite a re-read. I guess I can tolerate the clear-cut evil of the manical villains conceived by Deaver or Territsen or Sandford because they are too over-the-top to be real, than I can tolerate the plausible evil that pervades the world of the everyday seen through the eyes of a cynic.

However, if the sense of cynicism and foreboding grips you, there is always the next in the Quirke series, The Silver Swan.

2009 POLL #2--Do Mystery Stories and Political Bias Mix? What is closest to your view?