Sunday, October 26, 2008

Art Built on Character (Book - Christine Falls)

A full day in the lab and a computer problem caused by a Windows update kept me from ever getting to my computer yesterday, but without the internet I was able to watch a movie and almost finish Christine Falls. Around 50 pages from the end one already knows who did it, in fact, I have known that for some time (I think). There are two worlds in this story - one involved in perpetuating crime and one trying to uncover it. At a certain point the 'perps' are made known but there is a great distance between Quirke, our pathologist turned detective, and that other world. And in that other world, shady dealings are still going on and so a tension is created as I hope they will come together. As past events reveal themselves, one uncovers dealings that are quite purely evil - there are moral shades of grey - which make what is being uncovered more interesting still. I know I am being vague, but intentionally so as this is a story worth reading. Even if you are not typically into mysteries, or perhaps especially if you aren't. This is really an anti-mystery. The crime is certainly a crime, but likely didn't start that way. The detective is not really a detective, just a pathologist and the brother of a man who is somehow involved in the crime. And Benjamin Black makes these anti-genre intentions known with a smirk. After being physically attacked, Quirke goes to see a police detective involved in the case:
"Have there been any developments in the Dolly Moran case?" Quirke asked.
For a moment Hackett was silent and then began to laugh wheezily, his shoulders shaking. The tall, high-windowed housefronts seemed to peer down upon him in surprise and cold disapproval. "Ah, God, Mr. Quirke," he said with rich enjoyment, "you must go to the pictures an awful lot." He lifted his hand with the heel of the same hand wiped his brow and resettled the hat at a sharper angle. "Developments, now - let me see. We have a full set of fingerprints, of course, and a couple of locks of hair. Oh, and a cigarette butt - Balkan Sobrainie, I recognized the ash straightaway - and a lucky monkey's paw dropped by a person of Oriental origin, a lascar, most likely." He grinned, showing the tip of his tongue between his teeth. "No, Mr. Quirke, there have been no developments. Unless, of course, you'd call it a development that I've been directed to drop the investigation." Quirke stared at him and he tapped a finger to the side of his nose, still smiling. "Orders from on high," he said softly.
A hilarious swipe at Sherlock Holmes, or any classic mystery. Benjamin Black's anti-genre intentions are also made plain by the form of the same excerpt. In a pop novel of a more expected ilk, we would a) know nothing about any peering housefronts and b) this scene would not be laid out as one paragraph, but as several. Each bit of dialogue on a separate line to move the eye along, as the only thing that usually develops in a conventional mystery is plot. But here character is developed while the plot moves forward and their integrity is communicated by that unbroken block of text. Their integrity is essential because the mystery here is not who did it, but why certain people are involved in these crimes. Bad things appear to have been done by relatively well intentioned people. Ah, but character is everything in this thoughtful mystery, because issues of morality are entirely driven by individual circumstances. Very few people don't know what's basically 'right,' but circumstances make them forget, or think they are the exception. This is where Black's writing shines.
Dolly Moran, done to death for the keeping of a diary; Christine Falls and Christine Falls's child, both lost and soon to be forgotten; all of them, all scorned by him, unvalued, ignored, betrayed even. And then there was Quirke himself, the Quirke he was taking grim measure of, Quirke dodging into Mcgonagle's of an afternoon to drink his whiskey and laugh at the memorials in the Mail - what right had he to laugh, how much better was he than the joxer scratching his balls over the racing pages or the drunken poet contemplating his failures in the bottom of a glass? He was like this leg, cocooned in the solid plaster of his indifference and selfishness. Again that face with the black-rimmed glasses and the stained teeth rose before him in the darkness of the window like a malign moon, the face, he realized, that would be with him always, the face of his nemesis.
This sad contemplation displays such a lilting melody, and to use his own broken leg as a metaphor in this internal monologue is so... right. Another writer would chose a clever metaphor (actually, it's a simile) picked out of his own quiver, whereas here, the character chooses the simile from the force of his own circumstances. Ruing his own powerlessness, looking around him in this bar and seeing his own leg encased in something he cannot move, and snorting at it for its aptness. It is as if the writer is really an actor here.

Then, about fifty pages from the end, where I am now, Benjamin Black lobs a zinger into the plot. On the one hand, it really reeks a tad of melodrama, but I must admit I did not see it coming. Again I must be vague. But this development complicates the question of goodness and badness of certain behavior still further and really has me wanting to get to the end, to see how it all fits together. But I can't because I have so much school work to do today. That and a chamber music concert this evening.

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