IN the Dublin of Benjamin Black's "Christine Falls," a stubborn chill pervades the air, hangovers are a national pastime and chimneys always seem to be "dribbling smoke." We encounter a stodgy tea at the Shelbourne Hotel, the stink of burning peat and the "shabby sweep of Upper Mount Street" that leads to the Peppercanister Church, an ecclesiastical landmark set at an off-kilter angle. This is the Dublin of the 1950s -- decades before the Celtic Tiger purred, U2 started tinkering with nightspots and hotels, and untold Euros began flowing down Upper Mount Street, up Grafton Street, through Temple Bar and out into the hillsides and crumbling Georgian houses of Kildare.
In this moody debut thriller, which introduces the inquisitive and gloomy pathologist Quirke (no first name required, apparently), Black's Dublin is drained of color and a little unbalanced. To anyone who may have strolled along the spiffed-up banks of the Liffey in the last 15 years (the 1950s managed to hang on in Dublin until the '90s), it will be a dream as distant and yet indelible as the neighbor girl flickering in the doorway of Joyce's "Araby."
Such masterful atmospherics aren't often the stuff of mysteries, even top-shelf ones, so it's little surprise to find that the writer calling himself Benjamin Black is actually John Banville, the superb Irish novelist who (belatedly, some might say) won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for "The Sea." In fact -- for a novel so at play with the tropes of mystery writing (knotty plot lines, dropped clues, chapter-ending teases) -- there's zero suspense when it comes to the authorial whodunit: On the jacket flaps are Banville's name (front and back) and photo, like the fingerprints of a killer begging to be caught.
And why not? Benjamin Black isn't really so different from the Banville who created auras of foreboding and suspense in such novels as "The Book of Evidence," "Athena" and "The Untouchable" (inspired by the career of British art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt). "Christine Falls" extends "The Sea's" preoccupation with loss, bereavement and memory, steered in a hard-boiled direction by its compromised hero and reluctant amateur gumshoe Quirke, a middle-aged widower who claims, "I'm no more morbid than the next pathologist."
When a corpse identified as Christine Falls turns up in the Dublin morgue, the accompanying nonstandard paperwork catches Quirke's eye. The fact that Quirke's brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin ("the most sought-after baby doctor in the city"), seems to have something to do with it only stirs him up further. It turns out that Christine Falls once worked as a maid in Malachy's home and that she died in childbirth. But what became of the baby? Who is the father? And did Christine really have to die?
Quirke's investigations -- which are often set amid alarming intakes of alcohol and at one point get him beaten to a pulp -- are propelled by undercurrents as dark as those that appear to have done in Christine. Quirke's wife, Delia, also died giving birth (that child's identity is one of the novel's biggest bombshells); Malachy's father, kindly old Judge Garret Griffin, rescued Quirke as a boy from the grim confines of Carricklea orphanage; and Malachy's wife, Sarah, is the sister of the late Delia and a woman for whom Quirke harbors unresolved longings -- which may not be entirely unrequited.
The sisters, it turns out, hail from Boston, where their well-heeled father still throws his weight around in upper-end Irish Catholic circles. When Quirke heads over to Boston, ostensibly as chaperon to Phoebe, Malachy and Sarah's willful daughter (the sort of off-the-rails teen fatale you might find draped over Philip Marlowe in a Raymond Chandler novel), Black's thriller kicks into high gear, with ominous family reunions, a warped white-trash couple and a shady orphanage called St. Mary's, run by the creepy likes of Sister Stephanus and Father Harkins.
Leave it to an Irish novelist to nail down what's so scary about parentage, family and belonging. And to weave a redolent Catholic conspiracy that might stagger the author of "The Da Vinci Code." But what's best here isn't so much the forensic details of a horrendous crime, or even the inspired cameo by a barely disguised Brendan Behan, but the unraveling mystery that is Quirke himself: "For him," Black writes, "the spark of death was fully as vital as the spark of life." Nonetheless, in "Christine Falls," a crime novel that is more than a mere busman's holiday by a master of English prose, the pathologist hero finally learns that the living can be every bit as captivating as the dead. *