Using a penname when writing in a different genre is nothing new. However, it may be happening less and less because there seems to be a greater acceptance of genre works by so-called literary authors. For example, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an alternate timeline tale, while Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is simultaneously an alternate timeline/mystery story.
So why did John Banville use the nom de plume Benjamin Black for his two mystery novels, especially when he admits it’s really him all along? Probably because it’s fun, not to mention that I gets a lot of press.
Christine Falls concerns the death of the title character as she gives birth. Quirke Griffin, a medical examiner in Ireland, finds his brother-in-law in his office late one night changing the records of Christine’s death. From there we follow not only Quirke as he struggles to unravel an extended mystery that encompasses his family, the Church, and both Ireland and America, but also we are privy to the whereabouts of the infant, known to Quirke to be stillborn.
As mysteries go, not many are better written. Black’s prose is alive, his characters sharply drawn. Though his indulgences into some of the more melodramatic tendencies of the genre are readily apparent, they are handled with a skill that draws the reader farther into the narrative. Though I figured out the final revelation a hundred pages before the end, I only felt the book was slightly too long and left one begging for a sequel.
The primary misfire here is with the main antagonist, Andy, whose motivations never seemed fully clear. The dynamic nature of the other main characters only served to highlight this failure, causing this reader to cringe at a stock rendering. Especially as Black avoids the traditional comeuppance that such a character would receive, causing real dissonance between the narrative and genre expectations.
The plot also seemed a bit too complex, squeezing so much in that several plot threads don’t seem to have any real emotional payoff. I had hoped to see one particular angle explored in greater detail in Black’s second book, The Silver Swan, but reading the dust jacket makes me think that likely won’t be the case. Still though, Christine Falls is an entertaining mystery with the electric prose one would expect from a Man Booker winner.