My mystery book group met again this past Sunday to discuss Benjamin Black’s novel Christine Falls. As usual, it was a good discussion, although people had negative or mixed opinions of the book, which interests me, because from what I’ve read of blog reviews, a lot of people liked it. A common opinion in the group, though, was that it was an enjoyable read, but when we stopped to think about the plotting and Black’s use of mystery novel conventions, the book began to fall apart.
It was an odd reading experience for me because I had already read the sequel, The Silver Swan, and so I knew some of the major revelations that came in Christine Falls. In a lot of cases with a mystery series, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot if you read the books out of order, but in this case, I think it makes a difference. The two books felt less like two individual books, each with their own separate stories even though the characters are the same, and more like one novel with two different parts. So knowing what I did about what happens to the characters later, I had some of the major plot points spoiled for me, and that took some of the pleasure out of it.
That aside, I did find other things to enjoy in it, particularly in the main character Quirke, a pathologist who, in the novel’s opening scene, finds his brother-in-law Mal tampering with some documents in a highly suspicious manner. Quirke is compelled by forces in himself he doesn’t really understand — in that way so many characters in mysteries are — to find out exactly what Mal was up to, and from there he winds up embroiled in a plot that involves powerful people in the Catholic Church and extends all the way to America.
Quirke is a stereotypical mystery hero in a lot of ways — he has a troubled personal life and a drinking problem — but I liked him anyway. I suppose there’s no reason being stereotypical should make a character unlikeable, and there’s a reason such characters are popular. It’s interesting to think about the dynamic between the troubled personal life and the type of work these characters do. Quirke can be brutally honest about a lot of things, particularly about death, which makes sense since he is a pathologist and works with corpses all the time, but in other areas, he’s an expert at dodging painful truths and uncomfortable conversations. He’s a damaged guy trying to make his way through life with a minimum of fuss and trouble, but outward circumstances and, even more so, something in himself won’t let him off so easily.
A number of people in my group didn’t like the rather uneasy relationship this book has with mystery conventions, for example, the way it’s not entirely clear what the mystery is, even near the end of the book. The plot Quirke is uncovering isn’t terribly interesting as a plot, and some of the characters and events just don’t need to be there. I am less concerned about mystery conventions than others, as I don’t really care whether authors follow “the rules” or not, but I was bothered by the way so much seems nebulous in this book — the relationships among the main characters weren’t explained as well as I would have liked and the motivations among the bad guys for doing what they did seemed obscure. The novel is set in the 1950s, but this never felt real to me. Somehow, Black doesn’t make the time period concrete enough.
But I will say that I enjoyed myself as I read the book, even though I had some doubts later; it’s well-written with engaging characters, and I was curious to know what was going to happen to Quirke. I may have liked it even more if I hadn’t read The Silver Swan first.
We are reading Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone next (my selection). I’m excited to return to an early mystery story and to think more about the genre’s roots.
13 responses to “Christine Falls”
Oh, I thought The Moonstone was a great read, and it would provide fertile soil for ruminations on the evolution of mystery conventions…I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts!
I liked this, and The Silver Swan, quite a bit, and I think you’re right that this probably works better if you read it first. The nebulousness of the plot didn’t bother me because it seemed like this book was more about the characters than the mystery, and I thought the main characters were quite well-drawn. I’m not yearning for more Quirke books, but if Black does write more, I’ll probably read them.
Emily — I’ve actually read The Moonstone twice, and I agree that it’s a great read! I’m happy to be reading it again, and it will be interesting to read it in the context of this book group.
Teresa — I agree that the book was about characters more than mystery, and that’s why I didn’t fully agree with other people in the book group, although Black might have been better off not marketing it as a mystery at all. And the truth is, if Black does write more in this series, I might read them too.
I’m not sure that I’d enjoy this book; I kind of like my mysteries to have a clear mystery at the center of the story. I’ve never read the Moonstone, but will look it up now.
I had the same problems with Christine Falls, especially that I had no idea what the mystery was! I decided not to continue the series because of it, but as you’ve read on, perhaps you could say whether it might be worth it?
Have not read him. I like how you mention your book club and the mixed reviews. Sometimes those make for the best meetings!
The mixed reviews of the group are interesting since I’ve heard such good things about it. Will have to read it for myself and form an opinion. Thanks for the tip about reading the books in order!
I have to say I love it when my reading group doesn’t quite agree about a book. That always seems to spark the most spirited discussions. I do have Christine Falls on my shelf and am looking forward to it. I’m also planning to read Collins sometime this summer.
I think sometimes discussing a book in detail and with a group sometimes sheds light on not only what makes a good book good, but it’s failures as well. This can be a good thing, but it is very different than just reading for pure pleasure and letting small sticking points go. I think with mysteries I’m not overly particular if an author doesn’t do what’s expected, but it would be really interesting to compare books as your group is doing–and I bet there are some very serious detective fiction readers in your group that add lots to your discussions! I remember liking Christine Falls (still need to read The Silver Swan–will get to it eventually) and liking it, but it’s not a really traditional mystery–much more about the characters than the plot–as others have mentioned. I’m looking forward to hearing about The Moonstone–good choice! Now that is a book I really do need to read again!
The Moonstone is wonderful. I’m so happy to see Wilkie Collins showing up on so many reading lists. I was introduced to him through A Common Reader, a now defunct but wonderful catalog of books and reviews not easily found elsewhere.
Debby — I think The Moonstone is a whole lot of fun, and whenever you get in the mood for a 19th century novel, I highly recommend it.
Alison — I’d say if you didn’t like the first one, the second won’t be better. When I read the sequel, I thought it was okay, but those who have read these in order thought the sequel wasn’t as good as the first one.
Sheila — yes, some disagreement is definitely a good thing! This group is good because even when people agree on a general opinion, we can still debate smaller issues.
Stefanie — I know, I heard a lot of praise of this book, and so I was surprised that people consistently didn’t like it. I probably had the most positive view in the group — or one of the most positive, at least.
Iliana — well, I’ll certainly look forward to your opinion on Christine Falls — and also on Collins! I hope you enjoy them both.
Danielle — I agree that it’s a completely different experience reading a book for a group. With this one, I would have felt some vague dissatisfaction after finishing it, but wouldn’t have thought about it nearly as much, and after the discussion, I’m probably more aware of its flaws than I was before. We have a mix of people as far as familiarity with the genre — some have read lots of mysteries and have good background to offer, and others (me included) are newer.
Grad — I agree that The Moonstone is wonderful! I also enjoyed other The Woman in White and look forward to reading other Collins novels when I can.
I liked Quirke anyway, too (the way I seem to like a lot of those stereotypical mystery characters). I didn’t realize there was a continuation of the story in another novel, although the book is well set up for that. I would think it would have been VERY odd to have read that one first. And thanks again for choosing The Moonstone! Can’t wait to reread it (something I’ve been meaning to do ever since getting a new copy of it at last year’s library sale).
Emily — I’m glad you are looking forward to rereading The Moonstone. I love that book! I think most people in the group have already read it, but people seemed to be excited about reading it again. The sequel to CF isn’t as good, at least that’s the general consensus. But it is always interesting to find out what happens to the characters.