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Monday, April 7, 2008

Book Review: Banville Tacks as Black, but Plotting Lacks in Christine Falls

Review by Noah Mallin

I enjoy a good dark mystery whether it be a book, a film, or the 2000 Presidential Election. So evidently does Booker Prize winner John Banville, who lately has been penning a series of dark mystery novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black. The first of these is Christine Falls, now out in paperback (the form in which any good mystery novel should be savored).

It's a suitable moniker but one has to question whether it's necessary. Michael Chabon has been dipping his pen into many genres of late without worry of sullying his good name. Perhaps it's because Banville isn't yet fully acclimated to the strictures of storytelling that inform these books.

His set-up is a strong one. In strongly Catholic 1950s Dublin, hard-drinking pathologist Quirke discovers his brother-in-law seemingly in the act of altering the file of a deceased girl, the titular Christine Falls. His ensuing investigation unearths all sorts of family and institutional secrets perhaps better left buried.

There is no doubt that Banville has mighty descriptive powers:

"He was struck by the clammy coldness of the nylon; it had a human feel, like a loose, chilly cowl of human skin."

He also has a good way with characters, though occasionally some fall in the realm of cliche. Quirke makes for a sympathetic and mostly readable protagonist, even if he sometimes seems slow to take the bit. Often the reader is a bit too far ahead of him in figuring out where we're at.

Where Christine Falls gets tripped up is in its last two-thirds when it relies wholly too much on coincidence and a few plot machinations that strain credulity. It's here that Banville gets out of his depth and a first-rate mystery/crime novelist like Ian Rankin would know not to get bogged down.

The book is enjoyable and well-written until that point. Banville already has the second book in the series on the shelf and I'm curious to see if his plotting skills have caught up with the keen sense of 1950's Dublin (if not Boston so much), of character, and of description.

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