Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Black, Benjamin. Christine Falls. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

(Warning: I've tried to keep it vague, but there are a few spoilers here. I've noted the one paragraph that might be most problematic.)

I was initially very interested to read this pick for the mystery book discussion group when I looked it up online and discovered that Benjamin Black was the nome de plume of John Banville. Not that I remembered who John Banville was (he won the Booker in 2005 for The Sea). I don't pay a whole lot of attention to these award-winners, unless their names come up over and over again, so it's not surprising that I didn't remember Banville. However, right after this book was chosen for the book group, I happened to be at the Lancaster Library book sale, where I found a copy of his The Ghosts and nabbed it (before disappointingly discovering that it's the second in a trilogy. I hate reading books out of order, but you must know how library book sales are. You take what you can get).

While being very interested in a contemporary literary author who decided to try his hand at writing genre fiction, as I read about him online, I sort of wondered why he had bothered with a nome de plume if he was just going to announce his identity anyway. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking, maybe he tried to write pseudonymous-ly, and someone came along and "outed" him, and he'd had to come clean once the book was published. But no. I went to pick up the book at the library, which turned out to be a first edition and discovered right there in the cover copy that "Benjamin Black" is John Banville. That just seems odd to me. (Perhaps he remained pseudonymous in Ireland before the book was published in America? Does anyone know?)

Oh well. I put that little oddity aside and longed to attend the book group in person, because this book seemed like such a great choice to follow Ross Macdonald, who was someone (I know from having read that biography I constantly harp on about) who began his writing career with hopes of being a literary writer but all-too-soon found himself categorized as a writer of detective fiction, a label he was never able to escape. Here's a man who, instead, wrote his literary masterpiece (apparently) and then decided to try his hand at mystery writing. I had quite high hopes for such a book.

So, that was a very long way of telling you that my initial response to this book can be summed up in one word: disappointment. Part of the problem, I am sure, is that I'd just read stellar examples of "family drama cum mystery" writers (Macdonald and his wife Margaret Millar), and it was probably unfair of me to expect this first attempt by Black to hold a candle to two masters who'd honed their skills by the time they wrote the two books I'd read by them. In fairness to me, though, I will say that my first thought as I read the first few pages had nothing to do with those two authors. It was, "Ian Rankin does 1950s Dublin." Not that this thought did not bias me against Black, because, truth be told, that thought was actually preceded by a, "Oh no! Not..." Because, you see, for me (thanks to this book discussion group), just as there is no other Ross Macdonald, there is no other Ian Rankin. And yet, here we had an obviously alcoholic, once married, tough loner, and, well, I hope you can see why I might have made comparisons to Inspector Rebus.

But then I read on and realized that what was really bothering me was not that he was an Ian Rankin copycat (he really isn't. What he really is is a sort of bits and pieces copycat, someone who doesn't seem quite able to make up his mind exactly whom to emulate or what kind of mystery/thriller he is writing). No, what bothered me is what so often bothers me about contemporary literary writers. He wrote too hard. And I can sometimes understand why a writer who is trying to win awards might write too hard, but, come on, the mystery genre does not lend itself to writing too hard.

One of my fears is that, as a writer, I write like this,

A little black car, squat and rounded like a beetle, was approaching from the other side of the crossing, and at the sight of them surging forward it veered in fright and seemed for a moment as if it would scurry off the road altogether to hide among the marsh grass. (p. 266)

Okay, I don't fear that I write like that. I know that I do write like that. However, when I write like that, it's because I'm trying to be funny or trying to help people see life's absurdities the way I do. I would not stick such a sentence into a scene that involves a man we already know is impetuous and dangerous who might be in the process of driving one of the other characters to her death (especially when this scene is basically a foreshadowing of two similar and horrific scenes to come). It's out of place and over-dramatic to imply that even cars scurry out of this man's way. Even worse, a few lines down, the car bleats at him. Which is it? A bug or a sheep? Maybe it's a sheep-bug.

(Paragraph with spoilers right here.) And that's why I can't shake my, possibly unfair, comparisons to Macdonald and Millar. Those two give me beautiful quotes, marvelous simile and metaphor that's so effortless I almost feel as though I've been making the same connections all my life while being struck by their novelty and brilliance. They give me mystery and intrigue and screwy family dynamics that encourage me to fill in the blanks and create my own stories without seeming implausible. They do not, for instance, give me a woman who thinks she could possibly have fooled her dead sister's husband into thinking a child was hers that wasn't (wouldn't the man have any questions about how she'd suddenly had a baby? I know one couple was in Ireland and one in the States, but this was the 1950s, not the 1700s. Surely he would have known if his wife's sister was pregnant, especially when his wife was pregnant herself, even in 1950s Ireland, oh and given the fact that she, well, you know, happened to be married to an obstetrician). They would not give us an abusive, controlling husband who would agree to a very unusual adoption of a child that wasn't his without some truly compelling reason to do so (say, a wealthy, controlling brother-in-law who was the real baby's father. That would be classic Macdonald). I mean, most abusive husbands do not want to raise their own babies, let alone some stranger's. Granted, Black did give us some reasons, but those reasons were not compelling enough. As a matter of fact, that whole marriage made no sense to me. I came away from this book with all sorts of unanswered questions that didn't have plausible answers, and I didn't feel all that compelled to answer them anyway.

Black seems to have been trying to write a psychological mystery, but he doesn't seem to have had any real focus, and it doesn't even seem to be much of a mystery (the library from which I got it doesn't classify it as such). As with a lot of good psychological mysteries, the murder and whodunit are really inconsequential as the reader tries to understand the mysteries of this odd family. Who are the Bad Guys? What are these Bad Guys really doing? Again, the answers to these questions were ultimately unsatisfying to me (please tell me: nobody could possibly have been fooled by that one supposed "good guy." He was set up in a way that was almost farcical), and I didn't find anything very original here. (I know. I know. I'm looking for genre fiction to be original? But...well...yes.)

There was social commentary here, too, as Black highlighted the abuses that can so easily surface in a society in which young women are frowned on when they get pregnant out of wedlock (no matter who got them pregnant) and abortion is illegal. Yawn. And then there's that other old tired theme of organized religion's abuse of money and power. Yawn. Yawn.

Black was trying to do so much, and he fell short. I didn't have trouble getting through the book. He didn't lose my attention, but I can't be bothered to read more of his. As a matter of fact, John Banville has now been relegated to the bottom of the TBR pile, despite that eye-catching title.


Becky said...

I agree that the novel fell short as detective fiction, and I think you are right that Black/Banville was trying too hard.
But, erm, Rankin writes contemporary Edinburgh for the Rebus novels.

Emily Barton said...

Hmmm...I must not have made that clear. My meaning was "Black is trying to be Ian Rankin only in 1950s Dublin instead of contemporary Edinburgh." (Which he does very poorly, as Dublin does not come off as a character the way Edinburgh does in Rankin's books.) Or perhaps that use of "so-and-so-does-such-and-such" is an Americanism? If so, sorry if I lost my non-American members of my audience here.

Lisa said...

There is a tradition of publicly having several pen names in several genres in Latin America, but I agree that the way he has done it is odd - condescending to the mystery genre and designed to make $$ we decided.

Your views would have fit in well at the meeting. We were all agreed that is was OK but flawed at best.

I liked some of the writing, at times it was quite deft, but he did tend to overdo it. Your example was a good one. You nailed it - disappointing.

Lisa said...

Must add that I LOVE that cover. Wish the book was as noir creepy as that design.

Emily Barton said...

Lisa, yes, that cover just adds to the disappointment, doesn't it?

Dorothy W. said...

Your response was very similar to that of the group. There was a lot that wasn't adequately explained, and I wasn't really buying the setting either. We wondered how we would feel about it if it were just "literary fiction" instead of marketed as a mystery, and I think it might have been better, but I'm not sure the interesting characters (okay, maybe one interesting character) makes up for other flaws.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, so I gathered that my thoughts weren't too different from everyone else's this go-round. Yes, it might have been better if just marketed as literary fiction, but maybe not, because the parts that weren't explained well enough still wouldn't have been explained well enough. And the parts that seemed too far-fetched would still have been too far-fetched. At least, though, I wouldn't have been so inclined to be judging it as a "mystery."