Monday, November 27, 2006

Benjamin Black: Christine Falls

The publishers (Picador) make no secret of the fact that Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of last year's Booker prize winner, the Irish writer John Banville. Banville, it seems, has decided to write crime fiction from time to time, and for that purpose has chosen a new brand-name, to distinguish the crime novels from the literary.

All of which is sensible enough.

Christine Falls is described by the publisher as a 'crime thriller', and as such it scores about 7 out of 10, in my judgement. Not bad, then, for a beginner.

The novel is set in 1950s Dublin -- or so the back cover of the book says. But we are never given the precise date, and we don't even get any hints, from the names of Prime Ministers or Presidents, as to the decade. The casual reader, who knows nothing of Irish history and culture, might be forgiven for thinking that she was in the present day.

The principal character in Christine Falls is a man called Quirke. He is a pathologist by profession, and a widower. Again referring to the back cover of the book, we are told that Quirke is 'a truly original addition to the pantheon of crime fiction detectives', and so one gathers that he is to feature in a series of books. But original? Scarcely.

The story begins when Quirke comes across his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, in the pathology department. Griffin, a paediatrician, is busy entering false information on the death certificate of a young woman called Christine Falls. And this triggers off Quirke's determination to find out who Christine Falls was, and how and why she died.

The virtues of Christine Falls are that Benjamin Black understands the time and the culture that he is writing about, and portrays it very well. I am only an occasional visitor to Ireland, but I find it fascinating to observe the changes that have taken place there over the past forty or fifty years.

In the 1950s Ireland was a theocracy: it was governed, effectively, by the Church, which means the Roman Catholic Church. Only the weekend before last, I was at a party in Ireland at which a woman of my own age reminded me of what I already knew, namely that, in times past, the Church controlled everything. Not only Church affairs (of course), but politics, business, and the arts. Probably sport too.

Now, said my informant, that had largely gone. Partly as a result of revelations of child abuse by priests, partly because of the influence of the outside world, through books, television, films, and the internet, the Church had lost its grip. My informant, a lapsed Catholic herself, largely approved of that. But what had also been lost, she said, was the discipline. The baby had gone out with the bath water, and she wasn't happy with the result.

Such rapid changes in a society over a relatively short period of time will provide, of course, enough material for a dozen novels; and perhaps that's what Black/Banville intends to show us. Though as his protagonist is in his forties, he may have to swap him at a certain stage.

In any event, what we have here is principally a portrait of a time and a place, of certain sets of assumptions about the right and wrong way to do things, and of the good and bad consequences which can result. For me, at least, it was an interesting novel.

The shortcomings of Christine Falls are, however considerable.

To begin with, it is labelled 'crime thriller'. But where is the crime? I've found more in an episode of Balamory. There's the falsification of the death certificate; a bit of GBH when Quirke is beaten up; and some wilful breaches of the US immigration laws (which are hastily skated over, I note), and... that's it. There's no murder, let alone a series thereof.

As for a thriller... Not really. Black even fluffs the scene where Quirke is beaten up, because Quirke realises almost at once that the men have been sent to hurt him, not kill him. (Hint: next time, Ben, have Quirke think he's going to die, and then have him wake up in hospital and be told by a doctor that the men obviously didn't intend to kill him because they kicked him everywhere but on the head.)

In terms of its stated genre, therefore, Christine Falls is a bit of a non-starter. It's more like a mainstream novel. As such it held my attention all right, but it's not what it says on the label.

What really annoyed me about his book, however, was a failure in elementary narrative technique. Or perhaps I should say that the failure disappointed me. I certainly wasn't surprised by it, because literary folk seem to me to be fairly clueless when it comes to the vulgar business of keeping the reader glued to the page.

The plain fact is, Black simply doesn't know how to use viewpoint properly.

My own beliefs about the most effective point of view were set out on this blog some time ago, in a series of five posts beginning on 4 November 2004. I won't repeat myself here.

Suffice it to say that I firmly believe, as do many others who know what they're talking about, that the most effective way to write a novel these days is from what has been called the 'main-character viewpoint'. In other words, you describe the action as it is experienced by one principal character at a time. By all means vary the point of view, by allowing us to see the world through other characters' eyes. But stick to one point of view in each chapter -- otherwise the modern reader (if she has any sensitivity to what she is reading) experiences a nasty sense of dislocation.

Twice in the first ten pages, Black mucks us about. We start a chapter from the point of view of one person, and then suddenly lurch into another. My note for page 9 says: We are all over the bloody place, chopping and changing like a drunken sailor. The poor bloody reader is left [excuse the mixed metaphors] like a man in five feet of moving water, trying desperately to find his footing, and, for the most part, failing. What [my note asks rhetorically]was Ed Victor doing?

Ed Victor, for them as hasn't heard of him, is Banville/Black's agent, and a mighty power in the land. Well, ole Ed may be good at holding a gun to publishers' heads, but, despite working with Jack Higgins, he apparently still has something to learn about how to write an effective piece of commercial fiction. And for that matter, why didn't the editors at Picador sort this sort? Oh, but then, of course, Picador is a literary imprint, and the gentlefolk there don't dirty their hands with such sordid matters as telling a story effectively.

This clumsy handling of viewpoint continues throughout the book. And there are other signs of inexperience in this genre too. On page 53, a piece of backstory is conveyed in a remarkably clumsy manner:

'Did they beat you in that place you were in, in Connemara -- what was the name of it?'

'Carricklea Industrial School, so-called. Yes, they beat us. Why wouldn't they?'

And so on.

Fortunately, there are compensations for these irritations. On page 272, for instance, we get a very good insight into the way in which, as my recent informant reminded me, the Church fixed everything.

Sister Stephanus came back into the room, shaking her head. 'Dear Lord,' she said wearily, 'what a business.' She turned to the priest. 'Did the Archbishop...?'

He nodded. 'I spoke to his office. His people will have a word with the Commissioner -- there'll be no need for the police to get involved.'

So, as I say, 7 out of 10. Could do better.

I have remarked here before that the people who understand best how to write commercial fiction are the agents who have to sell it, week in and week out. Of these, the current leader is Al Zuckerman, founder of Writers House and author of Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Perhaps Ed Victor should swallow his pride and send his man for an afternoon's training by Dr Al. Go on, Ed. It'll be worth it.

11 comments:

Shameless said...

GOB, this is better than any review I've read recently in The Observer (which I and many others will no longer be buying), but apparently I mustn't take any notice of what you write, GOB, because you are not "professional", "paid" etc etc. Sorry about that. The thought police have spoken and I must obey. NOT!!

James Morrison said...

I enjoyed 'Christine Falls' with some reservations, and I am a fan of both Banville and genre fiction (especially SF and crime). My main concerns were twofold - for a crime novel, I couldn't actually determine where the crime was for much of the book. Secondly, I'm not sure how Quirke, appealing as he is, will work as a series character. He stumbles into his first 'case' because of his brother-in-law, but it's had to see how he'll become a full-on "detective", as the publishers describe him.

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Dobby said...

A changed of view point can be horribly off-putting. I'm trying to wade my way through The Various Haunts of Men at the moment by Susan Hill and there I have similar problems. I'm a fair way in and no dead body, just a missing one, and the POV stay with one character, but the author swaps between characters in the middle of a chapter.

This swishing from one POV to another makes it difficult to follow the actual action. If CF by Black has similar problems I will no doubt be giving that a miss.

As for the thought police... Does anyone really pay any attention to what they say? I can't remember the last time they gave a good review to a book I like or slated a book that had me nodding off.

I prefer the Amazon reviews, at least there you can get a rough idea of how ordinary people found the book.

Mind you, I did ignore the negative reviews for the Various Haunts of Men, and now I regret doing so. Why did I buy the book?

I likes the title. Crazy I know...

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Superannuated Man said...

Just given up on Christine Falls. Found it totally unconvincing. Also mildly irritated by Black's Banvillean (!) fondness for lumbering his characters with 'meaningful' names. Our detective's name may be Quirke, but interesting quirks are exactly what his banal story is missing.

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Anonymous said...

Not that I loved the book or anything, but the major crime was kidnapping. I'll say no more lest I give the plot away....

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