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Christine Falls    by Benjamin Black order for
Christine Falls
by Benjamin Black
Order:  USA  Can
Henry Holt, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Booker-prize winning John Banville writes this debut Irish noir mystery as Benjamin Black. It's set in Dublin and Boston in the 1950s, and stars lonely pathologist Garret Quirke, an orphan who was taken from the misery of Carricklea Industrial School by (now Chief Justice) Garrett Griffin, then raised and educated by him alongside his own son Malachy.

The pair went into medicine together, from which they emerged at opposite ends of the spectrum - Garret as a pathologist and Mal as a popular obstetrician. They married two sisters - Delia and Sarah Crawford - met during a stint in Boston, where they stayed with Garrett's wealthy friend, Josh Crawford. Quirke married Delia, who later died in childbirth, while Mal's union with Sarah resulted in a daughter, Phoebe, now grown up.

The first piece of the puzzle presents itself to Quirke when - in a somewhat drunken state after a farewell party for a nurse on her way to a job in Boston - he comes upon Mal in his office, tampering with records related to the corpse of a young woman named Christine Falls. He almost does not pick up on it, but Mal's subsequent uneasy behavior arouses Quirke's curiosity.

An investigation of the deceased's last known address leads him to midwife Dolly Moran, and the discovery that both Dolly and Chrissie had worked for the Griffins. He also finds out the young woman was pregnant and wonders what happened to the baby (readers see the infant's fate unfold in America long before Quirke learns about it). Soon after he talks to Mal, there's a brutal death, while Quirke himself receives unmistakable warnings to desist from his investigation.

Quirke uncovers links to the Knights of St. Patrick (Mal is a member) and crosses paths with Detective Inspector Hackett, who clearly suspects he knows more than he's telling. Phoebe is sent to Boston, to wean her from a relationship of which her family disapproves, and she asks her Nuncle to go with her. After taking a hard look at his own recent behavior - and not liking what he sees - Quirke does so, and picks up the trail of baby Christine at St. Mary's. There, a physician nun unhappy about her superiors' orders, tells him that 'When bad folk take it on themselves to do what are supposed to be good works it makes a sulfurous smell.'

In this meticulously plotted mystery, Benjamin Black makes even the macabre lyrical as when he tells us of his protagonist's fascination with corpses, that for Quirke, 'the spark of death was fully as vital as the spark of life'. The novel takes aim at the abuse of power - in this case in high Catholic society from Dublin to Boston and beyond - and the hypocrisy that often surrounds it, as well as at the many ways that people in all walks of life manage to deceive themselves.

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