Benjamin Black, Christine Falls (2006)

Why do I love Benjamin Black, alias John Banville? Maybe because of this sentence:

The walls of the corridor were matte green and the woodwork and the radiators were thick with many coats of a bilious yellow stuff, glossy and glutinous, less like paint than crusted gruel.

Makes you want to find the exit door pretty soon, doesn’t it? That is the Holy Family Hospital where the hero, Dr. Quirke, depressed and keen on alcohol, works as a pathologist, while his half-brother, Malachy Griffin, is “the most sought-after baby doctor of the city”.

I just love this (literally breath-taking) paragraph:

She had suddenly begun to feel the effects of the air journey, and everything seemed to her  to have a beat of its own, precise, regular, yet to be part too of a general ensemble, a sort of drawn-out, untidy, complexly rhythmic chord which she could almost see in her mind, undulant, flowing, like a bundle of wires pulsing and twitching inside a pouring column of thick oil. The urge to sleep was like oil too, spreading over her mind and slowing it. She closed her eyes and felt the gathering momentum of the car as Andy Stafford increased the acceleration, gradually, stealthily, it even seemed – […] but the cushioned churning of the wheels underneath her feet seemed more like something that was happening inside her, and gave her a horrible, lurching sensation and she hastily opened her eyes and made herself focus on the road again.

Can you feel the lull of this long sentence making you drowsy, the rhythmic acceleration of the car and the mounting uneasiness?

I could go on and on, just with sophisticated images and vivid juxtaposition of words whose sound and rhythm play an important part. Banville obviously never gave a damn about writing rules such as “No adjectives”, “Limit adverbs”, and I’m so happy about that. Imagine you write: “The greenish air of evening was softly warm.” and present it in a writing class: you’ll hear the teacher and students tut-tutting in annoyance, suggesting that you strike “softly” off, then rejecting “greenish”, finally concluding that the whole sentence may be unnecessary. Well, Banville gets away with it.

It’s not so much the plot, a classic noir thriller set in post-WW2 Ireland and Massachusetts, than the atmosphere that is fascinating in this book: a bleak, damp, cold Catholic Irish community on both sides of the Atlantic, where untold secrets still take their heavy toll twenty years later. Even if you can’t guess all the details, there is a strong sense of foreboding as you read it, so that it really comes across as a slow-motion tragedy-waiting-to-happen. Banville plays with all the classic elements of the 1950-ish “film noir”: the “femme fatale” in red lipstick and long gloves, the battered, downbeat hero, the big, glamorous cars speeding up in the fog etc. I could almost picture it played by Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart!

I read that Banville wrote this as the first of a series… I can’t wait to read the next one!


3 thoughts on “Benjamin Black, Christine Falls (2006)

  1. Pingback: Dublin noir. « The Hieroglyphic Streets

  2. Pingback: To Read or Not To Read in Order? | Smithereens

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