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Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Christine Falls

by Benjamin Black

Series: Quirke (1)

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CHRISTINE FALLS is the first novel of a series set in 1950’s Dublin and having at its centre the Griffin family who are part of the Catholic aristocracy. Quirke (if he has a first name I missed it entirely) is the foster son of the family, a pathologist and a drunk. When he notices his foster-brother Malachy – also a doctor – fiddling with a file he has no need to be fiddling with, Quirke becomes determined to find out what lay behind Mal’s fiddling with the file of someone called Christine Falls. This leads Quirke to endure his family’s wrath, a couple of beatings-up and a trip to America. At the same time as all this getting drunk and beaten up is going on we meet a young Boston couple who have adopted a baby called Christine.

CHRISTINE FALLS fits into what I call the middle-aged-male-wish-fulfilment genre of novel in which no matter how unattractive he is physically and/or psychologically the ‘hero’ of the story will manage to hang on to his job despite hitherto unparalleled levels of drunken incompetence and have all manner of impossibly gorgeous women tripping over themselves to bed him. Here an attractive nurse literally jumps on Quirke despite him having been beaten to a pulp and still being covered in bruises and bandages. I’m sorry but my eyes rolled. It’s this type of nonsense which stops me reading more noir.

Although in the end it offered a satisfactory, if bleak, resolution I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the plot either though I suspect if you read less crime fiction than I do you might have been less annoyed. I didn’t really get a genuine surprise in the lot but can acknowledge I’m not the average reader when it comes to this stuff.

The other thing I suppose one can’t do when discussing a writer of Black/Banville’s stature is fail to mention the writing itself but even there I’m afraid I wasn’t won over. Some of it – particularly the early scenes depicting Claire and Andy who are the adoptive parents of baby Christine – is rather beautiful but there is a lot of repeated imagery. I lost count, for example, of the number of times people are described as being like a stubborn/surly/recalcitrant child. And towards the end of the novel there’s a rape scene that just made me squirm. I can’t quote the passage now as the book’s gone back to the library but at the crucial moment we’re drawn to the image of dark and powerful waves crashing on nearby rocks. As if rape is as natural as ocean tides? Ick.

So…the book is not for me. I’m probably in the minority (again) but I found the characterisations too stereotypical, the gender politics bloody depressing and the plot easily predictable. As always though other opinions are available
  bsquaredinoz | Jan 2, 2015 |
A widower of a pathologist starts looking into the death of a young Irishwoman in 1950s Dublin and the trail leads him to some unseemly places and people who think they are doing God's work. Quirke, who seems to be a functioning alcoholic, finds his brother-in-law, an obstetrician, doctoring the woman's death certificate. Mal tells Quirke to leave it alone, but he can't.

The trail takes him to a back-door abortionist, to Catholic-run orphanages and homes for pregnant girls, and to Boston. On the way, Quirke runs into trouble with family, work, the coppers, do-gooders and no-gooders.

This is noirish novel that examines race, religion, class and country with an ambiguous ending that is now way joyful. The characters were bit cliched, but the writing in most places — there are a few rough patches — makes up for it. I'll definitely read the next one. ( )
  Hanneri | Oct 26, 2014 |
I like to read a series in order but recently I read the latest in the Quirke series, HOLY ORDERS, just because it came to hand. While that title stood quite well as a stand alone, some puzzling fragments that I came away with were made clearer in CHRISTINE FALLS.

This first novel in the series is set in Dublin (Ireland) and Boston (Massachusetts) in the early 1950s and emphasises the strong ties between the two. Wealthy Josh Crawford, living in Boston, has come up with a scheme to guarantee a reward for him in heaven. He is also the father of Quirke's former wife and there are those in Dublin who assist in his scheme. When Quirke begins to investigate the puzzle of what happened to Christine Falls he finds that there are people in Dublin who will go to extraordinary lengths to stop him.

This novel gives the reader a lot of Quirke's background from the previous twenty or so years.
It is also a commentary on the practice of sending Irish orphans to Boston for "adoption" in the 1940s and 1950s ( )
  smik | Aug 18, 2014 |
Well written, interesting tale and I liked the subject matter: Ireland, Catholic, 50's, human struggles. ( )
  mrluckey | Jun 17, 2014 |
This noir mystery is set in 1950’s Dublin at a time when the Catholic Church played a large role in the social fabric, particularly with respect to options for women. There is a small cast of central characters dominated by the two sons of an eminent judge, Garrett Griffin. The judge favored the orphan he raised, Quirke, more than his actual son, Malachy, creating a competitive love/hate relationship between the brothers.

The two boys went to Boston for medical school before returning to Dublin to start careers. While abroad, they fell in love with two sisters, Sarah and Delia, daughters of a wealthy entrepreneur with old connections to Judge Griffin. Mal married Sarah, and Quirke married Delia, who died in childbirth soon after marriage. There are hints that Quirke and Sarah have always been in love with one another rather than their respective spouses.

Although Quirke is a pathologist and Mal is an obstetrician, as the story opens we find Mal in Quirke’s office altering the death certificate of Christine Falls, a young woman now in the morgue. Quirke, pretty much always drunk, becomes curious and sets out to discover who this woman was and why Mal was changing her file.

As the mystery unfolds, we learn just how complex are the relationships among the members of this troubled family. We also get a sense of the corruption then spreading its tentacles through the Catholic Church, and into the lives of its congregants.

Discussion: Benjamin Black is a pseudonym for Irish author John Banville, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea. I felt that had it not been for the fact that the author was actually Banville, this mystery series might not have garnered as much notice.

In this first novel of the Quirke series (possibly Black improves as the series goes along), the author isn’t always adept at constructing his “red herrings.” When we find out something has been twisted and we look back, the deception isn’t quite as seamless as it should be. In fact, the biggest twist doesn’t hang together at all.

Also, a large part of the plot concerns the bad things that used to happen in Ireland to women who had babies out of wedlock. I think female authors would have been all over that plotline, but for Black, it’s just something to provide twists and move the story along about Quirke and Mal.

There are some passages that seem to be artistic to the point of obfuscation. At other times, though, the author’s literary bent does add to the atmosphere, but it is one so bleak and replete with damaged people (whether evil, bitter, drunken, empty inside, hypocritical, and/or psychologically unbalanced) that it’s hard to warm up to the story and its protagonists. Quirke is the most likable character, but that isn’t saying much; he himself owns up to his indifference and selfishness. He washes away the emptiness of his life with glass after glass of whiskey, without even any musings beforehand about what it is he wants so badly to erase. We, the readers, are not only left in the dark, but without much reason to feel sympathy for him.

Evaluation: This sordid, bleak tale is heavier on atmosphere than on taut plot-limning, drenched in the dolefulness of alcoholism; the abuse of Catholic hegemony; and the unhappy lives of hopeless people, who are impoverished in terms of money or character or both. The book won a nomination from the Mystery Writers of America for the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Novel, but I can’t see why, except that the author is really John Banville. ( )
  nbmars | Jun 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 87 (next | show all)
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. ... 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.
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It's not the dead that seem strange to Quirke. It's the living. One night, after a few drinks at an office party, Quirke shuffles down into the morgue where he works and finds his brother-in-law, Malachy, altering a file he has no business even reading. Odd enough in itself to find Malachy there, but the next morning, when the haze has lifted, it looks an awful lot like his brother-in-law, the esteemed doctor, was in fact tampering with a corpse - and concealing the cause of death. It turns out the body belonged to a young woman named Christine Falls. And as Quirke reluctantly presses on toward the true facts behind her death, he comes up against some insidious, and very well-guarded, secrets of Dublin's high Catholic society, among them members of his own family.… (more)

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