When it comes to crime fiction, "atmospheric" is a tricky compliment. Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series is atmospheric, but chokingly so, as are many novels and series set during World War II. Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels (maybe more on them later) could use more atmosphere at times, although since Renko operates first in deepest darkest Soviet Russia, then in the brittle and harsh new Russia, it is hard to say what constitutes atmosphere there, unease and depression appearing to be the major chords. Renko is no Dr. Zhivago, after all. In any case, atmosphere is an elusive quality, one that I particularly adore but it is hard to get right. So when the review blurbs Benjamin Black's Christine Falls (Picador, 2006) tout the novel's "masterful atmospherics" and "evocative settings," one might proceed with caution.
That would be a mistake, however, since Christine Falls is a great read. Set in Dublin and Boston in the 1950s, the plot is just a little bit ripped from the headlines, being a dark (as in horrible) and dank(as in it is always raining or snowing or misting or somehow precipitating) tale of orphaned babies, the Catholic Church, and people whose faith came to be in their God game, rather than their god. The sad story of Irish orphanages was first exposed by journalist Mary Raferty in the late 1990s, and her death this past week brought a reminder that the world Black creates really did exist, and that the scheme that his flawed characters developed could easily have been real.
One might also think that this would be a mean, low story, given the first sentence on the back of the book: "The hero of Christine Falls, Quirke, is a surly pathologist living in 1950s Dublin." The word surly may be off here - depressed, yes, making poor choices, yes, but surly implies nasty which Quirke is not. What he is through the entire story is more or less drunk, depending on the hour of the day. And while it is kind of pleasant to read a story in which people smoke with abandon, by the end one feels a bit like Quirke's ashtray, deeply in need of a bath. Anyway, he finds out about something bad, or at least finds some parts of something he thinks is something bad, and can't quite stop himself from doing something about it. I don't know that surly folk tend to do the right thing in the end. The other mild surprise is that for all the basement pathology scenes and cabbage-and-laundry smelling orphanages, Quirke actually moves in the higher levels of Dublin society, being family to a famous judge, a renowned obstetrician, and in love with his brother's wife, who was the sister of his own late wife, who are daughters of a wealthy Boston, Mass. businessman originally transplanted from Ireland (and of course, best buds with the aforementioned Judge - ultimately these close bonds suggest the claustrophobia of that life).
In fact, this novel really is all about the atmospherics. I've not read anything else by the author, who is actually a respected novelist named John Banville, but he is a terrific writer. (You can read an interesting interview with himfrom a few years ago in the Paris Review.) Black/Banville uses light to set his scenes, but it's not theatrical or artificial. The "greenish air of evening" (21) is the backdrop for the introduction of young Phoebe; there is a "spark of tawny light" (49) at the bottom of a glass of whiskey (there are a lot of glasses of whiskey; it is Banville's talent that puts that spark at the bottom of only one); the sky is "heavy with the seamless weight of putty-colored clouds" (182); and the scene of Quirke's meeting with Punch and Judy involves a "streetlamp's rain-pocked reflection in a puddle" and ends in "wet, glistening darkness." (197) There is a lot more of this, and it really is masterful, comes on just strong enough to support the mood of the scene, but doesn't overwhelm.
You can kind of figure out where the story is going, but it remains compelling to the end, largely due to the fine writing. One might enjoy sitting down with a whiskey after this, but while I am often inspired by books to take my cooking in a particular direction, I can say this one did not suggest anything tasty.