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Benjamin Black — The Silver Swan; Elegy for April

After reading the second two books in the Quirke series, it really makes me wonder why Banville even bothered with the pseudonym–it seems doubly self-indulgent when the writing is still pretty decent/lovely/atmospheric/appropriately noirish, and it has his picture and name on the black flap. I suppose everyone has their vanities. I read both of them last evening, and don’t quite have the energy to give each a full write-up.

The Silver Swan, though reviewers had written that they liked it better than Christine Falls, felt wrong to me. Oh, the writing was still fantastic, but the mystery aspect was lacking, a bit–the parallel narrative of the dead woman’s life was an interesting conceit, but the sordidness of it all combined with the lack of “detection” just left a really bad taste in my mouth.

Elegy for April was a little better for me, although still not quite so much a classic detective novel as one might expect, still leaves a little element of the unknown as both Quirke and Phoebe, now very much more a P.O.V. character (which was an interesting addition, at least) attempt to figure out what happened to Phoebe’s friend April Latimer. The noir elements are very much suited to the setting of 1950s Dublin, especially as Quirke, dried up after a nasty bout of alcoholism, confronts the world with new senses. Of course, the “twist” ending is again, quite nasty and unpleasant, and all together in keeping with the drabness and sordid lives that Black’s characters seem to lead (this is the second time such a twist has been used).

Either way, I’d continue reading them, but neither sequel quite lived up to the first.

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Benjamin Black — Christine Falls

This book originally caught my eye because of the summary–drunk Irish pathologist, solving crimes–but I really became intrigued when I realized that Benjamin Black was a pseudonym of John Banville, who is quite a fine writer in his own right. Combine awesome writing with a mystery with what seemed like an interesting protagonist, and I was hooked.

I had read somewhere that Banville regards his literary fiction as writing, but his crime fiction as craft. Still, despite the fact that this is evidently his own “lesser” regarded work–as evidenced by the pseudonym–I still found the writing to be quite beautiful. Though I’m not Irish and have never been to Ireland, Christine Falls had such a wonderfully evocative, melancholy atmosphere, both in the setting and the writing, that it was easy to finish in just a few hours, sucked in by mysteries involving dead women, babies, nuns, and the protagonist’s own mysterious past. It’s one of those books where you can just imagine the author narrating it to you himself; the strange loveliness and dark humor of the words (a hospital room is described as like being inside of a skull.)

As for Quirke himself, he’s fantastic. Flawed, of course–nearly alcoholic, of course–but incredibly fascinating. Just the little digressions on autopsies, corpses, his own wry outlook on life, were really enjoyable. Though he bumbles through the mystery, it really does sort of fall into his lap, watching him develop a bit of a conscience and a sense of responsibility, however too late it might have been, was also really well done. Quirke was just a lovely, haunted, unique character. (“I’ve cut up a lot of coprses in my time,” Quirke said, “but I’ve never found the place where the soul might have been.”) And for a longer example:

It seemed sometimes to him that he favored dead bodies over living ones. Yes, he harbored a sort of admiration for cadavers, these wax-skinned, soft, suddenly ceased machines. They were perfected, in their way, no matter how damaged or decayed, and fully as impressive as any ancient marble. He suspected, too, that he was becoming more and more like them, that he was even in some way becoming one of them. He would stare at his hands and they would seem to have the same texture, inert, malleable, porous, as the corpses that he worked on, as if something of their substance were seeping into him by slow but steady degrees. Yes, he was fascinated by the mute mysteriousness of the dead. Each corpse carried its unique secret–the precise cause of death–a secret that it was his task to uncover. For him, the spark of death was fully as vital as the spark of life.

Christine Falls is not a complicated mystery. Certain aspects of it were easy to telegraph almost from the start of the book. But again, the enjoyment is not necessarily in the who-dunit, but in the why, the how. How the book unfolds, how various characters are affected and destroyed by the events in the novel, before the novel. Certain parts of the book struck me as unnecessarily brutal, but somehow still fitting with the general theme of things. Certain ends have been left open, and I’m curious to delve back into the world of Quirke and his fucked up family.

It’s hard to find anything really bad to say about this book, especially considering it just as a mystery (the ONE quibble I had was his American characters rang a bit false); obviously it’s not on par with the rest of Banville’s fiction, but as an enjoyable, well-written mystery to while away a chilly evening (or in my case, a very un-Christine Falls-like 90 degree, unairconditioned evening), I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better one.

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