May 12 2007

Christine Falls

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black
(alias, John Banville)

Christine FallsThere is a rather querulous essay by the  classic detective fiction writer S.S. Van Dine (aka Willard Huntington Wright) called “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” where the author lays out the dos—and more importantly the don’ts of the genre for aspiring detective novelists.  Benjamin Black manages to break nearly all of them in his “debut” crime novel Christine Falls.

One can’t help seeing the quotation marks around the word “debut” since Benjamin Black is a pseudonymous persona for the Irish author John Banville, whose literary reputation is so well and long established he hasn’t needed to “debut”  even a grocery list for twenty years.  Christine Falls is not even his first attempt at crime fiction—that honor belongs to the frightening and unsettling The Book of Evidence, an in depth character study of the sociopathic Freddie Montgomery, who is the kind of guy that makes Thomas Ripley seem tame.  But setting aside the trivialities of pen names and the literary alter egos they imply, Christine Falls is exactly the kind of crime novel one might expect John Banville to write; a crime novel that dismisses the conventions of the genre with arrogance, with aplomb, and with admitted success.

John Banville has been called one of the most stylistically perfect writers in the English language, the literary heir to Vladimir Nabokov and even, if you can pardon the hyperbole, James Joyce. He is famously quoted as saying that fiction as a literary form is “childish.” “It’s too coarse. Which is why I’m trying to change it. My modest ambition in life is to change the novel entirely.”  So the casual reader might be forgiven for wondering why this author—who finds the general form of the novel so simplistic and limiting—would choose to write in a genre known for it’s formulaic approach to narrative. Why a writer known for his in depth character studies would write in a genre where plot is more important than person.  Why a writer whose novels so often leave us contemplating our own unfulfilled desires and dreams would write in a genre whose raison d’etre is to deliver the kind resolution and justice so often lacking in real life.

“The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.” fusses Van Dine in the introduction to his list of rules.   The rules, of course, include things like “play fair–don’t tell the detective anything you don’t also tell the reader.” “Make sure the clues are there for the reader to solve the puzzle.” “Don’t get sidetracked by extraneous subplots” and don’t, no matter what, fall back on “The butler did it.”

It isn’t unusual for contemporary mystery writers allow themselves to break one or two of Van Dine’s rules. But on the whole, most mystery writers (and readers) are still inclined to live by them, rather the same way that most poets, when writing a haiku, stick to the 5-7-5 rule for syllables per line.   Banville, on the other hand, ignores so many of the conventions of the genre that it is hard not to suspect him of writing the novel almost as an intellectual exercise—just to see how many rules he could break.  About the only thing one can say is that the butler does not do it. Since there are no butlers in the novel, I feel I can write this without being accused of giving away the story—mystery readers hate “spoilers”.  So, no butlers. There are, however, a couple of deliciously Mrs. Danvers- like housekeepers, but that’s all I’ll say about that.

Christine Falls is the name of the woman that Quirke—a Dublin coroner on the wrong side of fifty whose life has been a long decline of failed hopes and unavoidable disappointments—discovers in his morgue late one evening.  There is nothing unusual in this, of course. Quirke has fled the bright hilarity of an office party upstairs for the peace of the dead in his own domain.  What is unusual is that he isn’t alone—Quirke, in an alcoholic haze, stumbles into his brother-in-law Malachy (“Mal”), who apparently has been writing things down in Christine Falls’ file—something he has no business doing.  It takes about a day for Quirke to sober up enough to think the incident odd, but by that time the body of the woman has gone and the cause of death listed on her file—pulmonary embolism—in his brother in law’s handwriting—is a matter of public record.

It is the unfamiliar feeling of curiosity that drives Quirke to investigate Christine Falls, but the curiosity soon turns to suspicion and dismay when he finds evidence that Mal is involved in a cover up. The deeper he digs, the more evidence he finds of a conspiracy that seems to involve his family, his friends and his employers—in short, apparently everyone in Dublin but himself.  His mild questions even garner the attention of some extremely rarified personages in the Catholic Church, and he is counseled, with ominous tones, to drop his haphazard investigation. Which may have had some effect, if Quirke had not lost his faith years before, after the death of the wife he married only because he couldn’t marry her sister.  At the time of the story, Quirke is embittered and frustrated, inclined to drink too much, and far too cynical to care what his brother in law has gotten himself into—except, of course, that he is still in love with Sarah.

 Rule # 1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

There is a lot going on in this novel, but one thing that is not happening is any kind of “intellectual game” or “sporting event.”  There are at least three places in the story where Quirke is given knowledge denied to the reader (and several places where the reader is given knowledge denied to Quirke—which Van Dine considers to be an intellectually lazy way to write a detective story).   At these moments, the reader’s only recourse is to guess at what is happening.  Luckily, we are in an excellent position to do so, because unlike Van Dine, Banville is incapable of creating a character who is not psychologically complex and full of depth.  We may not know what specific thing Quirke is looking at when he opens Christine’s altered file, but we infer quite a lot from the emotions that bubble up within him, and from the way he shuts the file with a snap, and reaches for his hidden bottle of whiskey.

Rule #3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

Christine Falls is awash in “love interests”—both past and present, Failing, failed and fulfilled  It is a silly rule anyway because “love interests” are such an excellent, excellent reasons for murder.

Rule #    6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects.

I’m afraid that although Quirke, as a coroner, might fit the bill as a “detective”, he doesn’t really detect. He stumbles about, asking all sorts of alarming questions which naturally lead to alarming consequences.  He doesn’t solve things so much as  happen to be around when the consequences of his bumbling start to bear fruit.

Rule #    7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.

Van Dine would be very unhappy with Banville on this point, since although there is more than one corpse; how they have died, who killed them and even why is never really in question.   Murder mysteries aren’t really about justice, they are about violence.  Banville is interested in violence. Although his novels are often called “cold” and ‘aloof” they aren’t. They seethe with suppressed violence in its many shades and colors, from the mildest impulses of intimidation to the most extreme manifestations of megalomaniac rage.

Rule #    13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story.

Well, I did mention that the Catholic Church is involved in the fate of Christine Falls, did I not?  We all know who has done secret Catholic extremist societies to death recently, but I’m happy to say that there are no antique puzzle keys or albino monks cluttering up Banville’s story. If anything, the author seems more interested in the way we reconcile our own good intentions .

Rule #    16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction.

And here is where I secretly suspect Banville of breaking into contemptuous laughter. Because in Christine Falls, we have a crime novel where the many descriptive passages hint at the novel’s underlying themes.  Where atmospheric elements are metaphors for motives, where supposed “side issues” have far reaching effects on the story, where style is more important than plot and where character, as they say, is king.

Quirke is often to be found ruminating on the distant past, and it only serves to call into question his motives in the present.  His relationships with Sarah, (Malachy’s wife), and Phoebe (her daughter) are not quite familial and not at all platonic, but it is in their complexity is the answer to what happened to Christine Falls.  Ultimately, the novel is an exploration into how past sins are always visited upon the present, and how one bad choice ripples outward to wash into the lives of many disparate people. Banville delights in creating subtle—and some not-so-subtle metaphorical allusions to add extra weight to the story’s themes. Quirke—the black sheep of the family, is an obscure coroner who works among the dead. His brother “Mal” (bad, in the Latin) is a successful obstetrician responsible for delivering life.  Quirke believes in nothing but won’t compromise his sense of what is “right.” Mal is a faithful Catholic who lives by eternally compromising.

The truth is, Banville tips his hat at all the usual conventions of the detective novel but bows to none of them.  He is a master of suspense, but he is more interested in the combustive potential of two people than with any epic battle between good and evil.  Quirke doesn’t want to bring down the Catholic Church. He isn’t some avenging angel pursing murderers across the ocean. He just wants to find out what happened to one young woman, and to make sure that whatever happened, it won’t hurt the woman who holds his unrequited love.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Banville has “changed the mystery novel entirely.”  The story has a few flaws—a few of the characters whose personality seems to change to fit the requirements of the story, and a rather hasty ending to one villain involving some railroad tracks that will have traditionalists howling in protest.  Mystery readers who look for justice to be served upon the guilty will find that what is just depends very much on one’s point of view.  Quirke is often called “a good man” in the story—usually by women who want to sleep with him. But his good intentions aren’t equal to his own less than perfect impulses, much less the forces arrayed against him. The mystery of Christine Falls is ultimately solved, and Justice is meted out deus ex machina, but for Quirke, anyway, it resolves nothing.