Christine Falls

True to the librarian stereotype I drive a Honda Accord, listen to the ubiquitous public radio, and the horn-rimmed glasses? Judge for yourself.

Not long ago my ears perked up at this NPR story about renowned Irish novelist John Banville writing “noir crime fiction” using the handle Benjamin Black. I of course ran to my local library [i.e. my place of employ] to see for myself.

Reading a novel has a lot to do with expectations. I usually find myself reaching for “page turner” fiction a la David Baldacci, or Michael Crichton as the equivalent of time spent watching sitcoms, or sports. I want to be entertained, I have low baseline expectations. I expect the last sentence of each chapter to make me antsy to turn the page and see where the plot leads. The artistry of these novels is the author’s ability to compel his readers to keep turning pages, breathlessly reading to see what comes next, all the while knowing before the book was pulled off the shelf how it will end. The good guy gets the girl, the baddies lose but are never far from popping up in a sequel and our notions about the world have been prodded but left intact.

Christine Falls is not one of these novels, and my experience of it was influenced by my expectation to the contrary. I have not gone back and listened, but I believe the NPR story used the phrase “page turner” to describe this work. I’m not sure what exactly I expected from the loaded term “literary” crime fiction though, so I guess I made my own bed on that one.

This is not to say that you should not read this book. It is not, even, to say that I did not myself enjoy this book. This Benjamin Black cat has chops. He writes a mean sentence and makes you believe in his characters. What he does not do is spoon feed you the plot. Now, this is not Pynchon (more on him in a later post) – there is a well defined and forward moving plot. But there is plenty of action surrounding the plot that does not move the eye in linear fashion towards a guiltily satisfying end. This, I guess, is what lets us call a story about stolen babies, murder and sordid family histories by that tantalizingly mysterious descriptor – literary.

There is not much room for interpretation in John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief. There is mystery, intrigue and violence, but his character’s motives are not complex. His sentences are brief, declaratory. Black gives us more nuanced characters, and more complicated situations. Christine Falls makes the reader work to connect the dots. What is exceptional about one woman’s death to an English pathologist who has made death his career? How do we interpret the family history that privileges the adopted son over the natural. Why are we all of the sudden reading about a trucker from Texas? What do we make of all these jumps, asides and misdirection in the plot?

Frank Kermode asks “why, in fact, does it require a more strenuous effort to believe that a narrative lacks coherence than to believe that somehow, if we could only find out, it doesn’t?”1 Ah ha! This comes back to my expectations about picking up this book in the first place. My regular page turners, my mindless TV sitcoms, conform to this ingrained belief about narrative coherence. Our minds expect stories to make sense, all of the details to line up. When we don’t have to work for this we can hum along with the tune as the plot moves ever forward to its predictable conclusion. When we have to work in order to make sense of the plot our brains are engaged, we interpret, we make our own connections in order to satisfy the urge for narrative coherence.

So pick up Christine Falls, but don’t do it expecting popcorn. Read it with an eye toward interpretation and let the plot come as it will. Read it and reflect on what Raymond Chandler, godfather of noir fiction, has to say about heroes:

The hero may, as far as his social position is concerned, be anybody. He may drop his aspirates, he may be a boor…He may squint, he may be club-footed, he may wear ready-made clothes, he may smoke in church, he may shoot foxes, he may brow-beat women and patronize old men. But there is one quality which we demand in him: he must be a remarkable person.2

It seems that Black has certainly read Chandler, and written Quirke, his hero, to conform with the above sentiments. Read Christine Falls also for the writing. Black is a master of setting up our expectations, building attachments to characters and then crushing us under the weight of these expectations. As this happens to us, it happens in the novel. Consider one such passage,

He spoke without preamble, watching her smile as it dismantled itself in slow, distinct stages, first leaving her eyes, then the planes besider he eyes, and last of all her lips.

Black dismantles his story in similar stages. This is not a novel where our assumptions about the world are prodded, they are assailed. Bit by bit the characters are stripped of their innocence, their nobility. True to the genre of noir fiction there is a seedy underbelly and no one really escapes their circumstances. We seek coherence; we seek a hero we can belive in. And Quirke is a remarkable man, but even here we must be careful. It may be that he is remarkable only as a distillation of our uncertainties and weakness. His pursuit of truth is not Arthurian. It is mixed with self-interest, animosity and wanderlust. Quirke is searching for answers about a dead woman but also about himself. At the end, we think that perhaps he has found only answers that lead to more questions.

So like all good page turners Black leaves open doors more than wide enough for a series of sequels to pass through. But more than that he has left doors open throughout the text for us to walk back through and investigate more. The plot of his novel is a well-marked path, but one that winds through the scenery of lives, tangential events and social mores. As with this review, it took me a while to come around, but once I did I found that I enjoyed the opportunities in Christine Falls greatly. It was not the expected high speed chase through downtown streets, but a trip more rewarding for its demands. The next time I want to read for mindless pleasure I’ll stick with Baldacci, thanks much, but when I want to stretch a little, and oh yeah, read some damned fine prose, Christine Falls’ sequel is already published and waiting. Mr. Quirke, we shall meet again in The Silver Swan.

1The Genesis of Secrecty: on the interpretation of narrative, Harvard Univ. Press : 1979; p. 53.

2 “Th Remarkable Hero,”The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-fiction 1909-1959. Raymond Chandler. Grove Press, 2002. accessed via Google Books []

4 Responses to “Christine Falls”

  1. Rainey Says:

    Speaking of a well-written sentence and a well-turned phrase…

  2. SweetTea Says:

    I second Rainey and envision that you’ll be writing a syndicated weekly book review soon.

  3. walter Says:

    That’s a great Chandler quote– where’d you find that? “He may smoke in church, he may shoot foxes…” brilliant! Seems like Banville clues you in to the off-kilter from the start with the name Quirke, no? Sort of obvious, and a small point, but I love stuff like that. Our hero is quirky. Well, aren’t we all?

  4. Conan Says:

    The truth is that you can pretty much pick up any Chandler and find great quotes like that. I think his essay “The remarkable Hero” is somewhat canonical.

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