Sunday, October 08, 2006

Literary Meets Lurid

There’s nothing new about mainstream novelists crossing over to pen detective yarns, as Michael Dibdin observes in The Guardian. “Anton Chekhov’s novel The Shooting Party, a moody whodunnit,” notes Dibdin, “introduced the sensational plot device which a rather different author with the same initials would reinvent 40 years later in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” However, he adds, such shifts of literary course are often made behind the ephemeral cover of pseudonyms: “More recently, Julian Barnes writing as Dan Kavanagh and Tim Parks as John MacDowell have produced thrillers (Duffy, Cara Massimina) that cast an interesting light on aspects of the authors’ imaginations concerning which the novels published under their own names are reticent.” Dibdin might also have added to that list historical novelist Gore Vidal (who, as “Edgar Box,” concocted three mysteries featuring detective Peter Sergeant) and Irish author-screenwriter Brian Moore (who wrote thrillers under the nom de plume “Bernard Mara”). And, of course, acclaimed Irish-born poet Cecil Day-Lewis (father of actor Daniel) adopted the name “Nicholas Blake” when he wrote his adventures of amateur investigator Nigel Strangeways (A Question of Proof).

Now comes Christine Falls, a reportedly ripping thriller credited to “Benjamin Black,” who turns out to be none other than John Banville, the Irish author of last year’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea. According to The Guardian, this is the “first in a projected series featuring a pathologist hero à la Patricia Cornwell,” set in the dismal, boozy Dublin of the 1950s. The protagonist is Quirke, a “quirky but likeable” chap who “runs the pathology department of Holy Family hospital,” writes Dibdin. “Christine Falls is a fallen woman, but Quirke’s investigations into the circumstances of her death lead him into the dark heart of a family with more skeletons than shoes in its closets, not to mention intimate links to the Knights of St. Patrick, a clandestine organisation rooted in the nascent Noraid community of wealthy Bostonian Irish-Americans. Worse still, the family is his own.”

The British Amazon site presents a rather more succinct distillation of this novel’s plot:
In the Pathology Department it was always night. This was one of the things Quirke liked about his job ... it was restful, cosy, one might almost say, down in these depths nearly two floors beneath the city’s busy pavements. There was too a sense here of being part of the continuance of ancient practices, secret skills, of work too dark to be carried on up in the light. But one night, late after a party, Quirke stumbles across a body that shouldn’t have been there ... and his brother-in-law, eminent pediatrician Malachy Griffin--a rare sight in Quirke’s gloomy domain--altering a file to cover up the corpse’s cause of death. It is the first time Quirke encounters Christine Falls, but the investigation he decides to lead into the way she lived--and the reason she died--disturbs a dark secret that has been festering at the core of Dublin’s high Catholic society, a secret ready to destabilize the very heart and soul of Quirke’s own family ...
So, why did the 60-year-old Banville, who’s made a name for himself with precise, cerebral works of fiction, suddenly detour into the realm of homicide and duplicity? The Times of London says, “The initial spur ... was commercially motivated,” Christine Falls having started life “as a television script for a mooted co-production between [Irish public service broadcaster] RTE and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.” “Of course,” says Banville, “it went nowhere, as most scripts do. It was sitting there for about two years and I suddenly thought one day: I’ll turn it into a novel. I had no idea how long it would take me or if it was going to be serious work. But in a curious way, it fell onto the page.” Actually, 300 pages--about 100 longer than The Sea.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read Christine Falls; the novel isn’t scheduled for publication in the States (by Henry Holt & Company) until next March. It will be interesting to see how the highbrow Banville approaches his lowbrow story setting and characters over the long term. Already, though, Tom Rosenthal of Britain’s The Independent seems willing to wager that Banville’s series protagonist can maintain reader interest and loyalty through more than one novel. “Quirke,” he enthuses, “possesses most of the by now archetypal attributes of the troubled investigator/hero. His physical appearance (huge) is striking; he drinks too much; he is a widower; he suffers a fearsome beating at the hands of thugs hired by the sinister, ultra-Catholic cabal of Dublin worthies who run the city if not the country. He also gets his fair share of opportunistic sex. And, like all the breed, he pursues the mystery despite everyone’s opposition, to the exceedingly bitter end. To some extent his victory is Pyrrhic and the epilogue ... is ambiguous. But Quirke survives to do battle in another book.”

What more can you really ask of a fictional sleuth?

No comments: