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.