Review 2067: Christine Falls

Benjamin Black is a pen name for Irish writer John Banville. Christine Falls is the first of his Quirke mystery series, set in the 1950’s.

Quirke is returning to his office in the pathology department of a Dublin hospital when he finds Malachy Griffin working on a report at Quirke’s desk. Mal, his brother-in-law, has no business being there, and Quirke notices he is working with a file for Christine Falls, a new arrival in the morgue whose death is listed as “pulmonary embolism.” Quirke thinks about this and after he finds out that Christine was a maid in Mal’s house, he does an autopsy, finding that she died in childbirth from a hemorrhage.

So, what happened to Christine’s child? Quirke’s inquiries lead him to a laundry run by the Catholic church, where he is told the child died. But information from an inhabitant tells him that isn’t true, and in fact, in the opening of the novel, a nurse is taking a baby on a ship to Boston.

The more Quirke looks into the whereabouts of the child, the more pushback he gets, and the secret seems to involve his wife’s family, with whom he already has difficult relationships. But more is going on, he learns, when a witness is tortured to death.

Christine Falls is a dark novel that comments on the relationship between the powerful and the weak. It is eloquently written and definitely a page-turner.

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Review 2053: #1929 Club! The Last September

I chose The Last September for the 1929 Club because I believe I’ve only read one book by Elizabeth Bowen, and that was long ago in a literature class. It is mostly a character study of a young girl during a turbulent time in Irish history.

Lois Farquar is at the point in life where she is trying to find where she belongs. She is recently out of school and has an uncertain place in the home of her uncle, Sir Richard Naylor. The life of her family and their neighbors in County Cork seems to center around visits, tea parties, and tennis with the young people in the neighborhood, including young officers of the occupying British army.

The Naylors are expecting a long-awaited visit by the Montmorencys. Lois is especially interested to meet Mr. Montmorency because he was once a suitor to her mother and she hopes to have a special friendship with him. But Hugo Montmorency chose his wife Francie instead of Laura. Francie, about 10 years older than Hugo, has become invalidish, and Hugo is constantly disgruntled and sulky. He seems to disklike Lois.

Lois is also trying to figure out how she feels about Gerald Lesworth, a young subaltern who has been courting her. At first, she seems more interested in a crush on Miss Norton, another visitor.

The events in this novel seem so mundane that it’s hard to believe that at this time the country was at war. However, slowly this becomes obvious.

This novel is beautifully written, evoking a time and place that by the end of the novel is gone. It is sensitive and observant, occasionally a social satire, but a subtle one.

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Review 2027: Small Things Like These

It’s 1985, and Ireland isn’t doing well financially, but Bill Furlong is just about keeping his head above water with his coal business. He is a moody man, the son of an unwed mother who was lucky enough to be kept on by her employer, Mrs. Wilson, instead of being sent away when she was pregnant. Mrs. Wilson also paid for his education and helped set him up in business. Still, he wonders who his father is and if this is all there is to life.

Shortly before Christmas, he delivers an order of coal to the convent, which runs a laundry and a school for girls. There are rumors about fallen women being forced to work there and to give up their babies. But other rumors say the nuns do the laundry.

Locked in the coal shed, he finds a dirty, barefoot girl. When he takes her to the door of the convent, the nuns send her for a bath and invite her for tea. She comes in later and says the girls were playing a game with her. Bill is later ashamed of himself for saying nothing, even though she begged him to ask about her baby.

When he tries to speak to his wife about the incident, she is clear that he should not cross the nuns. So are other people. But he reflects that it would have been his own mother in the same situation 40 years ago.

At 114 pages, this novel is short, really a novella, and moody, seriously examining the subject of people’s responsibilities to others. It is purely written, pared down to its basics. A note at the end provides statistics about the Magdalen laundries, the last of which didn’t shut down until 1996.

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Review 1879: The Good Turn

Garda Peter Fisher doesn’t make the report of a kidnapped girl a priority because the information is conveyed in a garbled form, but when he questions the witness, he begins to take it seriously. When he gets a lead on a possible escape vehicle and Sergeant Cormac Reilly is busy with the family, he goes out alone to intercept the suspect. The suspect drives his vehicle directly at Peter, so he shoots him. Then the girl is found unharmed.

Cormac’s boss, Brian Murphy, refused him extra resources when the girl was reported kidnapped, and now he suspends Cormac, labeling the case a complete fiasco. But Cormac believes Peter reacted correctly and the suspect was guilty. In the meantime, Peter is sent to work under his own father in his small home town.

Peter thinks a murder case has been closed prematurely, so he begins investigating it properly. Soon he begins to suspect someone has murdered two old men and is killing his own grandmother.

Cormac gets on the track of corruption in his station and begins working with Interpol. In the meantime, his relationship with his girlfriend seems to be going south.

This is another interesting crime novel by McTiernan with a complex plot.

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Review 1855: The Scholar

The Scholar is the second novel in Dervla McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series. Cormac, who left an elite Dublin squad for Galway because of his girlfriend Emma’s opportunity at a local pharmaceutical lab, is still being given cold cases, despite his success with his last case. But of the three sergeants in the squad, Carrie O’Halloran is handling many more cases, so she asks to offload some of them. Reilly gets the Henderson case. He is barely started on it when he receives an alarming call from Emma. On the way to work at the lab, she has found the body of a hit-and-run victim.

Reilly realizes that he should probably not take the case, but it is quickly established that Emma’s car could not have run over the victim. Also, he feels protective of Emma and thinks he can help her if he is in charge of the case. The victim seems to be Carline Darcy, the granddaughter of a giant in pharmaceuticals, or at least Carline’s ID for the lab is in her pocket. However, when the police go to interview her roommates, they find Carline alive, and she denies any knowledge of the girl. Reilly thinks she’s lying.

The girl turns out to be Della Lambert, a dropout of the university. Although she comes from a poor family, she seems to have lots of money. The lab denies any knowledge of her, but Emma is sure she’s seen her there with Carline.

This was another complex mystery with interesting characters, although I found Emma to be enigmatic. She had very little presence in the first novel, but there were hints of something in her past. In this novel, those events are explained.

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Review 1817: The Ruin

Twenty years ago, Cormac Reilly drove out to an isolated cottage on his first call as a policeman. He thought he was doing a welfare check, but because of some muddle, he arrived to find two terrified children, Maude Blake, 15, and her brother Jack, 5, and their mother, dead of an apparent overdose. With no phone service available, Reilly broke protocol and took Maude and her badly injured brother to the hospital. Then Maude disappeared. Reilly has always felt he didn’t do enough for them.

Now Reilly has taken a job in Galway to be with his partner, Emma, who was offered a prestigious position in a lab. This move is a demotion for him, because he had been part of an elite squad in Dublin. There is something not right in the Galway office, though. Instead of taking advantage of his experience, his chief is assigning him cold cases and the officers are treating him oddly with the exception of Danny McIntyre, an old classmate. Soon he hears that someone is spreading false rumors about him.

Then the old case raises its head again with the death of Jack Blake, who apparently drowned himself in the river Corrib. Cormac is not assigned this case, though. After Maude reappears and insists that her brother’s death was not a suicide, he is told to pursue her for her mother’s murder.

McTiernan’s first novel, The Ruin is engaging and atmospheric. I liked it a lot.

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Review 1786: The Unforeseen

Although I haven’t yet read Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited, the movie based on it remains one of my favorites for Halloween. I didn’t realize that The Unforeseen is not a sequel to it but a follow-up and that a few of the characters make a reappearance. So, I’m reading and reviewing out of order.

Virgilia Wilde cannot afford to live in the city while she is sending her daughter Nan to art school in London, so she buys a cottage in the wilds of Wicklow. There she enjoys herself rambling the countryside and working on a children’s book about birds. However, she begins having strange experiences. First, she thinks she is seeing ghosts—a shadow in the doorway when no one is there, a telegram being delivered when one isn’t. She fears she is losing her mind so consults Dr. Franks, a psychiatrist. But he thinks there is nothing wrong with her. He consults his son Perry, who is a doctor with an interest in parapsychology, and eventually they realize that Virgilia is having visions of the future.

In the meantime, Nan has a frightening encounter with a sculptor and decides to come home for the summer while she works on illustrations for a book. Virgilia doesn’t want Nan to know about her visions, but soon she has some frightening ones.

This is a good little thriller with a supernatural angle to it. It has convincing characters and beautiful descriptions of the Irish countryside, reflecting the relative peace of Ireland during World War II.

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Review 1783: Himself

Best of Ten!

Mahony has been raised to believe that his mother abandoned him on the steps of an orphanage. However, when Sister Veronica, who hated him, dies, he finds out that he was left with a note telling him his true name, his mother’s name, and “she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you.” So, he travels to Mulderrig, County Mayo, to find out what happened to Orla Sweeney.

Mahony is an attractive young man, and at first he is warmly received despite his mid-70’s hippie rig. Soon, though, the word is out, and most of the townspeople want him gone. Orla was wild, a thief and a prostitute, and she just up and left. But he finds a few supporters who believe she was murdered: Mrs. Cauley, an impressive old actress; Bridget Doosey, the slatternly housekeeper for the nasty local priest; and Shawna Blake, who takes care of Mrs. Cauley.

And, although they can’t really help him, Mahony can see the dead. When he was a child he saw them, but they faded until he set foot in the town. There’s only one dead person he can’t see—Orla.

This is a peculiar, dark story. I loved it. I first read Kidd about six months ago, and she hasn’t disappointed.

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Review 1772: The Fall of Light

The Fall of Light is like all the Irish epics rolled into one, minus the gruesome murders. It’s the tale of Dierdre of the Sorrows applied to one family.

It’s the early 19th century, and Francis Foley is moving on again. Throughout his life, he has become angry at his fate and moved from one place to another. This time, he’s had a great argument with his wife, Emer, and she left the house. Now, he and his four sons are on the run, because he broke into the lord’s house, stole his telescope, and burned the house down.

They have been heading west, for Francis believes they will make their home on the Atlantic Ocean. But when they reach the River Shannon, Francis, always hasty, never to be denied, says they must cross it where they are without looking for a bridge or ford. They cannot even see the other side. And in that fateful crossing, Francis is swept away from his sons Tomas, the twins Finbar and Finan, and Teige, who is only 10.

One by one, the brothers lose each other, and the story becomes each one’s journey to find a family and a place in the world, through famine and terrific hardships. This is a lyrical, lush story that makes the journey of a family into a tale of mythic proportions.

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Review 1765: Brooklyn

It wasn’t until I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s latest novel on Sunday that I noticed no review for Brooklyn, which I was sure I had read. I looked back at my old records, and sure enough, I read it in March 2016, but mistakenly removed the flag from my notes that indicates I haven’t reviewed it yet. So, here goes.

Brooklyn is a quiet story set in post-World War II Ireland and New York. It is about the tension between yearning for home and desiring to make your own way in the world.

Eilis Lacey has finished a bookkeeping course and is eager for work, but the only job she can find in her small Irish home town is clerking at Miss Kelly’s store on Sunday mornings. Her brothers have emigrated to England for work, and the family is supported by her older sister Rose, who works as a bookkeeper. Rose wants more for Eilis, so she arranges for Father Flood, a visiting priest, to find Eilis a job in Brooklyn.

The best he can do for her is a clerk’s job in a department store, Bartocci’s. Eilis enjoys her job, but she is frightfully homesick and does not much enjoy living in Mrs. Kehoe’s boardinghouse. Reasoning that being busy will make her less homesick, Father Flood signs her up for courses at Brooklyn College.

Soon, she is making a new life for herself, doing well in her courses, and even finding a boyfriend, a cheerful Italian plumber named Tony. She is finally settling into her new life when something unexpected occurs that takes her back to Ireland and a choice between her two lives.

Written in Tóibín’s graceful prose, Brooklyn is a quiet but powerful character study and exploration of the immigrant experience in post-World War II America.

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