By Benjamin Black
Holt, 352 pp., $25
Dubliner John Banville's novels blend psychological insight with breathtaking lyrical firepower. Banville's "The Sea," his 2005 novel about an Irish writer haunted by his past, won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Now Banville (adopting the noir-sounding pen name Benjamin Black) has turned his enormous literary talents to something new. "Christine Falls" is an intricately plotted, beautifully written debut crime novel set in 1950s Dublin and Boston. In it, dark secrets lurk beneath the placid surface waiting to be revealed.
The secrets in question are family secrets, hidden for decades, and reading "Christine Falls" is like peeling an onion that turns out to be rotten at its core. Banville centers his narrative on Dr. Quirke, a pathologist at Dublin's Holy Family Hospital.
A widower and workaholic, Quirke labors in the hospital's basement morgue. One night a drunken Quirke finds his brother-in-law Mal Griffin, a doctor who works upstairs, secretly altering the file of a dead woman just sent to Quirke's morgue. When Quirke begins asking questions, the answers only lead to more troubling questions. The corpse of young Christine Falls is inexplicably shipped out before Quirke can perform his autopsy.
Fueled by his own demons, Quirke cannot leave things alone. He retrieves the corpse of Christine Falls and does an autopsy. Quirke discovers that the young woman did not die from a pulmonary embolism (as the file altered by Mal had claimed), but during child birth. Quirke, an orphan who had been adopted by the Griffin family, devotes himself to finding the Falls baby and its father. And during this perilous search, Quirke is confronted by the labyrinthine mysteries of the Irish criminal underworld, the Catholic Church, and his own family history spanning Dublin and Boston.
Quirke initially suspects Mal of being the missing baby's father, of trying to save his marriage by covering up his extramarital affair with Falls. The plot thickens when we discover that Quirke is in love with Mal's wife, Sarah, and that Quirke had long ago wanted to marry Sarah but had settled for Sarah's (now dead) sister instead. While this family drama might turn maudlin in lesser hands, Banville's unspooling of the narrative thread is expertly paced, continually heightening the story's dramatic tension. "Christine Falls" is a page-turner told in prose so beautiful you'll want to read some passages repeatedly.
Here's Banville describing Quirke's morning walk to the morgue: "He eyed the tall windows, thinking of all those shadowed rooms with people in them, waking yawning, getting up to make their breakfasts, or turning over to enjoy another half hour in the damp, warm stew of their beds." Later, Banville describes a gruff Irish detective as having "a nose like a pitted and mildewed potato." When Quirke's search takes him to Boston, where Christine Falls's baby had been sent for adoption, he meets his millionaire former father-in-law, Josh Crawford, who's got his own dark secrets. Banville describes the dying Crawford's eyes as "shark-blue and piercing and merrily malignant."
In Boston, Quirke discovers that the Falls baby is part of a huge transatlantic smuggling operation involving the Catholic Church. He also discovers the terrible fate of that baby and the shocking identity of its father. By story's end, Quirke has unraveled the interconnected threads of this gripping mystery, but he has found nothing close to redemption. In Banville's shadowy, soul-dark world, the journey toward truth is invariably painful but always revelatory.