Magazine article The Spectator

E for Effort in a Hard School

Magazine article The Spectator

E for Effort in a Hard School

Article excerpt

CHRISTINE FALLS by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black Picador, £12.99, pp. 411, ISBN 0330445316 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Somebody, somewhere, must be writing a PhD exploring why authors of literary fiction so often try their hands at a crime novel and why some of them come a cropper in the process. The latest author to hear the siren call of crime is John Banville, winner of last year's Man Booker Prize. Christine Falls is set in the 1950s. Written under the pen name of Benjamin Black, it is billed as the first of a series and takes place in Dublin and the environs of Boston, Massachusetts. Its lumbering protagonist, Quirke, practises as a pathologist -- 'a consultant to the dead' -- at the Holy Family Hospital in Dublin. Grim and lethargic, sustained by a diet consisting principally of whisky and cigarettes, he is a childless widower known only by his surname even to his nearest and dearest.

The eponymous Christine Falls, a young woman who has recently given birth, ends up on a slab in Quirke's morgue. His curiosity is aroused when he catches his coffin-faced foster brother Mal Griffin ('the most sought-after baby-doctor in the city') tampering with Christine's records.

There's little love lost between the two men, though they grew up together and married sisters. Quirke still carries a candle for Mal's American wife Sarah, and he's also close to Mal's daughter, 19-year-old Phoebe, and Mal's father, chief justice of Ireland and papal count.

The plot thickens when it turns out that Christine Falls once worked as a maid in the Griffins' house.

In a leisurely, hungover fashion, Quirke investigates the circumstances of Christine's death and tries to trace her baby. His motivation is a little obscure but his curiosity is strong enough to survive a bad beating that puts him in hospital and leaves him permanently lame. …

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