It started like CSI Dublin...
There are a wealth of fascinating characters in Christine Falls (more on that momentarily), but the atmosphere of the book is almost more compelling than the characters, or the underlying mystery (more on that as well).
Quirke is a pathologist in 1950s Dublin. It starts off feeling very much like an episode of CSI:Dublin. A mysterious death, a persistent pathologist. But not the clean, crisp, morally certain world of CSI:Miami, but rather the lonely, smoky atmosphere of forensics in what seems like a disintegrating, dilapidated world:
Quirke, still in his gown and green rubber apron, sat on a high stool by the big steel sink, smoking a cigarette and thinking. The evening outside was still light, he knew, but here in this windowless room that always reminded him of a vast, deep, emptied cistern it might have been the middle of the night. The cold tap in one of the sinks had an incurable slow drip, and a fluorescent bulb in the big multiple lamp over the dissecting table flickered and buzzed. In the harsh, grainy light the cadaver that had been Christine Falls lay on its back, the breast and belly opened wide like a carpet bag and its glistening innards on show.
And then there is the smoke. Everything smokes in this book. Quirke smokes. His niece smokes. The chimneys smoke. The fireplaces smoke. Of course the police smoke, but that is described with loving, almost intimate care:
Quirke finished his cigarette and Hackett offered another, and after the briefest of hesitations he took it. Smoke rolled along the top of the desk like a fog at night on the sea.
Even the nuns smoke:
Sister Stephanus sat motionless and stared at the hastily squashed cigarette butt, from which there poured upward a thin and sinuous thread of heaven-blue smoke.
By the time the book was over, I wanted to smoke. About the only thing that's more frequent than smoking is drinking - but they are usually inextricably linked. The book is dark and smoky, and most of the characters seem to have an ashen taste in their mouths, as the phrase goes. There are some wonderfully humorous moments, and the occasional respite from the darkness. But these are exceptions.
Black/Banville has created a protagonist worthy of more than just a genre novel. Quirke is rendered with precision, sympathy, and believability, even when he might not be the most sympathetic of characters at time. To my mind, he most resembles Martin Cruz Smith's redoubtable Arkady Renko. Quirke is incapable of turning off his almost irrational curiosity, even in the face of clear physical danger. And he seems congenitally unable to tell a lie to spare someone's feelings (perhaps even his own), even when it seems there's no chance the lie will be exposed. But one senses that this is not because he has moral qualms about lying - rather it seems to stem from pure obstinacy.
Class makes its presence felt in the novel - the Catholic / Protestant split is clear both in Dublin and Boston, and the economy class distinctions are on display as well. Dublin is wonderfully painted, compellingly so. Boston I found to be done reasonably well, but the scenes there did not hold my interest until well past midway of the book. As an evocation of time & place, the Boston scenes were good, but not in a class with some of the best books set in the area (by, say, Dennis Lehane or Robert B. Parker). But Dublin....now that was well done.
But the book does not feel like it's ultimately about class, or location, or even religion - rather, it seems a meditation on secrets, mistakes, and the past - the gripping tentacles that reach forward in time to drag us down. The mystery itself (this is after all at least in the form of noir mystery) - well, the surface mystery is not so hard to figure out - I won't spoil it, but I guessed the answer fairly early on in the book. The deeper mystery is harder to sniff out, and (at least for me) comes like a sucker punch in the gut.
Christine Falls was compelling reading. Superficially, it was genre - but like the best literature, it's about what makes people tick.
(A minor complaint - I received this book as part of the LibraryThing "Early Reviewers Program". The implication is that this program is for reviewing not-yet-released books. As it happens, this book has been out for some time - after writing this review I found that there is a NY Times book review written on this book from over a year ago, and the original copyright is from 2006. Abby confirmed that this is in fact a new edition of a book previously released in the UK. And in the end, who can complain about receiving a book of this quality for free?)