In his decision to write a straightforward, no-nonsense thriller about transatlantic baby-smuggling and the Catholic Church, John Banville, a veritable emperor of baroque prose, has not so much taken a vow of poverty as put in a sly bid to extend and reinforce his stylistic dominion. Ostensibly a “genre novel,” Christine Falls actually aspires to something far more permanent, shunning the glib lubricity of most pulp fiction for more subtle pleasures. Those familiar with Banville will have expected nothing less; the neophyte, however, who picks up this racy little number anticipating nothing more than a night of brisk casual thrills may soon be surprised to find himself in the grips of a literary passion he had not gambled on.
Still, it is smallish fry compared to the great white of The Sea (last year’s Booker Prize winner), and one understands why Banville has chosen to veil himself, however lightly, with the diaphanous sobriquet of Benjamin Black. Things are set in motion thus: During a party at the Holy Family Hospital in Dublin, Quirke, an aging pathologist who likes his drink, discovers his brother-by-adoption, Mal Griffin, down in the morgue tampering with the records pertaining to a newly arrived cadaver, one Christine Falls. Despite clear indications that he should do otherwise (large, illiterate men, an inner sense of foreboding), Quirke begins to make inquiries around town and soon discovers that Christine Falls (a name bursting at the seams with theological import) was formerly employed as a maid in his brother’s household, at which point his hermeneutic zeal begins to get him in serious trouble.
Like Banville’s other more hysterically depraved leading men, Quirke perceives the physical world with an incessant, almost intolerable lucidity. In the process of being beaten to within an inch of his life by a pair of Dublin heavies, he still can’t help but notice “the cold, greasy feel of the area steps under his desperately scrabbling fingers.” And indeed, although Banville is primarily concerned with fueling his narrative engine and has, accordingly, placed a sensible embargo on some forms of stylistic finesse, one of the many pleasures of the book consists in watching him smuggle descriptive gems past the borders of the narrative. Another is the Dublin locale. Setting the novel on home turf, Banville can have his characters say things like “Jesus Christ in gaiters” and “the Abbey Theatre from this day forth must make do without the fruits of my genius,” without sounding implausibly demonstrative.
One English newspaper has described Banville as the heir to Nabokov, although at times one can’t help but feel the Irishman embezzled at least some of his wealth. However he came by it, there is no doubting that Banville has invested his literary capital wisely, far more successfully than many other contemporary novelists. Instead of bodying forth a reality that has already been shot, stuffed, and proudly mounted (the impression we get in much of Amis, another of Zeus-Nabokov’s many mortal children), Banville’s sentences take us out into the wild and show us the living, breathing, noisome actual in its natural habitat. When most of us would turn away squeamishly, Banville leans closer and stares with steady, exacting eyes: “In the harsh, grainy light the cadaver that had been Christine Falls lay on its back, the breast and belly opened wide like a carpet bag and its glistening innards on show.”