A joke from the 1970s : A stranger walks into a Belfast pub and orders a beer. The man next to him at the bar eyes him suspiciously for a few minutes, then leans over and says “what religion are you, then?”. “I’m atheist.”. “We’re all atheist, but are you Catholic atheist or Protestant atheist?”
Mr. Quirke, consulting pathologist, is a Catholic atheist. He spent his early years in an orphanage until he was adopted by Judge Griffin, then a barrister. Griffin had a son, Malachy, but gave all his attention and care to Quirke. Malachy, thin, nondescript, dull in every way, became the city’s leading obstetrician, sought out by the well to do mothers-to-be. Quirke, built like a bus but with ridiculously dainty feet, became a pathologist. He and Malachy married sisters, Delia and Sarah. Delia died in childbirth while Quirke was out getting drunk, leaving Quirke bitter, lonely, and unable to forgive himself.
Christine Falls is set in the 1950s, in an Ireland that is still completely dominated by the Catholic hierarchy, and in Boston, then an outpost of Ireland. A shadowy right-wing Catholic organization, the Knights of St. Patrick, are up to nefarious no good involving the smuggling of infants. Quirke and, as it turns out, all of Quirke’s adopted family, are drawn into a web of deception and betrayal.
This is a firstrate novel. Though it works absolutely as a crime/noir novel, it is stunning for the clarity and brilliance of the writing. Quirke, describing his sort-of-brother Malachy: “he was a kind of sphinx for Quirke: high, unavoidable, and monumentally ridiculous.” The author, John Banville, drops these little gems throughout, never ostentatiously, but naturally.
This is the first in a series, perhaps, and I am looking forward to the next.