Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black

Drinking deep in Dublin's dark heart
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The Independent Culture

Like Ruth Rendell with her "Barbara Vine" persona, John Banville has adopted a new name - Benjamin Black - to signal a departure from his usual mode of writing. As with Rendell, the departure proves not to be too radical. Christine Falls is a thriller, but you only have to consider earlier Banville novels - The Book of Evidence, Mephisto - to see that the thriller element was never far away. Banville's has always been a dark and dangerous world, replete with mysteries and melodramas, and with that opposition of chaos and order which is central to the detective genre. The strange and unnerving atmosphere of his early work is replicated by Benjamin Black, with only a slight shift of emphasis.

In Christine Falls, it's the atmosphere of 1950s Dublin: dishevelled streets, pungent hostelries, an overwhelming churchly murk. The central character is a pathologist named Quirke, an expert in death, and victim of a mysterious oppression of spirit, which, indeed, afflicts almost every character. The sense of futility and desolation comes off the pages like the reek of corruption. Quirke first appears in a state of partial drunkenness, and sleeps it off on the floor of his morgue. But before he passes out, he has taken note of an oddity: his close relation, obstetrician Malachy - Mal - Griffin, in the act of falsifying a young woman's death certificate.

The pathologist and obstetrician are related by upbringing, and by marriage to a pair of Boston-Irish sisters (one, Quirke's wife, long dead); but not, apparently, by blood. Quirke, as a boy, was plucked out of an orphanage by Mal's father Garrett Griffin, a judge about to be made a papal count. He was given an education with the judge's son, engendering loyalty and friction, and the need to keep family matters under wraps.

This is a culture in which secrets, the pursuit of power and a Catholic freemasonry thrive. The sinister Knights of St Patrick come into the picture, along with an enterprise involving the transportation of surplus babies from Ireland to Boston. Nurses and nuns are conscripted as couriers of the blanket-wrapped bundles.

Everyone now has heard of the Irish Magdalene homes and their hellish regime. An equivalent here is the Mother of Mercy Laundry. But this acts only as a tiny pointer to a wrongful ordering of society, based on coercion and cover-ups. Like Dolly Moran, gin drinker, unauthorised midwife and eventual murderee, you have to be "good at keeping secrets" to gain a foothold on the dubious superstructure - though the secrets may do for you in the end.

Quirke's resource is the Dublin pub, and one of his drinking companions is Brendan Behan (renamed Barney Boyle). Reality, invention and literary borrowings are purposefully intertwined. The motif of misbegotten babies harks back to the sensation mode of the late 19th century. But it's the Dublin of clandestine affiliations, of breweries and pieties and priestly pomp, that animates the narrative. In Black's hands, the impulse of social criticism makes a compelling alternative to the usual thriller-writer's drive; at one level, you can read Christine Falls as a tribute to all the bygone victims of an indigenous fanaticism and exploitation.

Patricia Craig's biography of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury