Friday, March 6, 2009

Nom de Plume

Why does an author change his identity? John Banville, Booker Prize winning author of “The Sea” and other works of serious literature, assumed the pen name of Benjamin Black to write the crime novel Christine Falls. His protagonist is a pathologist named Quirke (I don't think his first name is ever mentioned), a hard-drinking, brooding bear of a man who works in a Dublin hospital morgue in the 1950's. A morgue? That's a great setting for a crime novel. And sure enough the story begins when, long after midnight, an inebriated Quirke encounters his adoptive brother Mal altering the file on a recently arrived corpse named Christine Falls. This event launches Quirke into the unaccustomed role of detective as he attempts to discover the truth about the girl's death. But his investigations reveal secrets not just about the corpse but about his own past as well.

Setting the story in the 50's allows Black to explore the atmosphere of guilt and sexual repression of that era, the male domination of women as well as the power and influence of the Catholic Church. He does a great job of creating a gloomy noir mood in Dublin, where it seems to always be rainy or foggy. And when the scene switches to a millionaire's mansion outside of Boston, it feels a lot like “Citizen Kane”. The characters are not exactly three dimensional, but then that's not really the point in mystery novels. The plot has more than enough twists to keep you turning the pages, and Quirke is very appealing as the flawed hero.

I had some trouble accepting the plausibility of the conspiracy that Quirke eventually uncovers. Could they really have pulled this off, even in the 50's? But Black's prose is a pleasure to read. He's already written two more Quirke mysteries, so if you like this one there's more to enjoy. Banville clearly seems to relish writing in this genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment