For a Booker-winning author like Banville to stoop to writing crime fiction like Christine Falls (Henry Holt, 340 pages, $25) is an event. Sort of like what might happen if a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in the United States like, say, Jane Smiley were suddenly to write a smutty Hollywood sex novel (uh, I guess she's done that, actually).
Christine Falls bears a passing resemblance to the Dublin novelist's 14 previous books, rich with psychological insight and portentous human relationships, but with none of the usual jarring shifts in chronology and a higher body count. Banville writes clean, elegant prose that never sounds a wrong note, and perhaps that's the chief weakness of his first crime novel. Banville's is pulp fiction without much pulp, which—kind of like orange juice—is fine for kids but a bit watery for grown-ups.
The less the reader knows about Christine Falls going in, the richer the experience. By all means, skip reading the blurb on the front flap (it gives away too much) and let the true nature of the relationships between characters unfold at the novel's own pace. It's enough to know that Quirke Griffin, a hard-drinking pathologist at a Dublin hospital, stumbles upon his brother-in-law, a more prestigious doctor at the same hospital, altering the medical file of a young woman who has died under mysterious circumstances. What follows is as accomplished as anything by P. D. James, with about half the page count. The difference is, Quirke is no Adam Dalgleish. He doesn't want to solve the mystery; he just can't help it. The truth wants to break his legs. The shocking revelations one expects in modern crime novels aren't terribly shocking in Christine Falls because Banville makes the novice mystery writer's mistake of telegraphing his intentions well in advance. The obvious solution is too obvious, of course, making the second-most obvious solution even more obvious, and the only possible correct one.
Christine Falls promises to be the first in a series of whodunits featuring Quirke, and Banville leaves plenty of loose ends (such as the truth about orphaned Quirke's parentage) to entice readers back for a second installment. To succeed, however, Banville-Black will need to infuse his crime writing with less Joyce, more noir. MATT BUCKINGHAM.
Benjamin Black né John Banville appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4681. 7:30 pm Friday, March 23. Free.