Too Much Talent

Sometimes it seems John Banville has talent enough to recycle. A gifted writer, he is adept at criticism, review, and fiction. His talent runs over at the seams with wit, vocabulary – ah! the vocabulary – and intriguing concept. It seems natural that he would turn his attentions to the mystery novel, as he has with “Christine Falls,” from Picador in the UK and Henry Holt in this country. Mystery novels are all about investigation, discovery, moral outrage. They make a habit of the protagonist being warned off investigations because he is getting too close to an uncomfortable truth.

Banville’s previous effort, “The Sea,” won the prestigious Mann-Booker Award in 2005. He was short-listed for the same prize a year earlier.

If it seems a bit disingenuous for “Christine Falls” to appear under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black, only to have his identity revealed as John Banville on the inside front flap of the dust jacket, then, on the inside flap of the back, trumpeted again “Benjamin Black is the pen name of John Banville,” you can suspect the possibility of legalities with Banville’s previous American publisher. After reading a few pages of “Christine Falls,” in which you are introduced to a badly hung-over pathologist named Quirke, who lurches into the gurney bearing the corpse of a young woman named Christine Falls, you can suspect the heavy hand of symbolism. And promotion. It is indeed a black, gloomy atmosphere in which Quirke is set in motion, presumably to do in the morgue and drawing rooms of 1950s London what Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone does in the Santa Teresa version of Santa Barbara, which is to say probe.

John Banville has a gifted way with the language, the story form, and single-malt liquor, all of which he takes on like a pub bully, edging his readers and critics into available corners, winning their spare change at bar games, then reducing them to a state where they appear and feel like the culls on “American Idol.” The technical facility is there, and Black/Banville has taken on some touchy subjects, too long left unspoken, and so kudos to him once again. But he does not take us very far beyond the surface of his characters, dealing more with a dissection of ideas and concepts than humans and their motives. We might say of John Banville that he is all skin and no salami, hopeful that he would try the bracing effects of a Twelve-Step Program in which he first admitted that he had no control over his story because of symbol and metaphor. With a tad of empathy in his tool kit, John Banville would not have to pound on the literary equivalent of the barstool to challenge any writer in the house.

The Right Amount of Story

Meanwhile, first-novelist Sheridan Hay does have it, by which I mean empathy. She also has a resounding sense of balance, which keeps her on the tightrope of drama without allowing the precipitous dip into melodrama or bathos. She also has a lovely eye for character. “The Secret of Lost Things” has 18-year-old Rosemary Savage, fatherless from birth, witness the death of the mother to whom she was overly attached. At loose ends, more or less on her own with the exception of the guidance and solicitude of her mother’s best friend, Rosemary leaves her native Tasmania for New York, where she feels even more cut off from the familiar and the comfortable – that is until she discovers the Arcade Book store.

The Arcade is a mountainous depository of used books, rare books, and out-of-print titles, the sort of book store that rarely exists anymore, thanks to the big chains and their selling strategies. Scarcely has Rosemary set foot in the Arcade when she confronts the brusque, Dickensian owner, Mr. Pike. “I must work here,” she tells him, her sincerity and determination winning him immediately.

Her low-on-the-pecking order job places Rosemary amid a dazzling array of eccentrics and misfits, all of whom have come to the Arcade out of the idiosyncratic chance anyone who has ever worked in a book store will recognize. The denizens of the Arcade hold one another in an edgy regard, each nursing some seemingly impossible agenda, each hopelessly in love with books. There is the transsexual cashier, a meticulous and witty albino, a frustrated opera singer, and a mailman with a flair for the dramatic. There is a clerk who, in spite of or perhaps because of the tip of his nose being bitten off in a fight, is extraordinarily successful with women. The Arcade is rarely without a cadre of customers, all of whom have the needy impatience of men and women who are in dysfunctional relationships with books and authors.

Before long, Rosemary, already reading at the level of an eccentric auto-didact, comes to favor the work of Herman Melville over all others, then becomes involved in the quest for some missing letters written by Melville to his friend and admirer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

This theme of the quest for the Melville letters will suggest aspects of “Moby-Dick,” particularly underscored by the diverse ensemble cast in each novel. As the suggestion surfaces, what great fun it is to attempt making comparisons between the characters in each novel.

“The Secret of Lost Things” is yet another form of the coming of age novel. “I was born on April twenty-fifty,” Rosemary tells us, “never mind what year precisely; I’m not so young that I care to put my age about, but not so old now that I forget the girl I was.” Definitely a retrospective vision of the approximately 10 months from Rosemary’s arrival in New York to her discovery of the Arcade, her subsequent hiring, and her involvement, first with the writings of Melville, and then her part in the quest for those missing letters (which are real enough and, indeed, partially quoted).

There is no way around it, Sheridan Hay is a lovely writer, very much her own storyteller and stylist but also reflective of the honesty and openheartedness of Melville at his most engaging. “What will I do?” she has Rosemary ask her mentor after her life has been dealt a series of stunning blows. How tempting it would have been to wring a bit more pathos from her protective systems being stripped away from her. And how easy to have stepped over the line of a motivation based on plausible despair and into the boggy ooze of self-pity. But Sheridan Hay has control; she knows that story trumps stage directions. The secret in “The Secret of Lost Things” is a lovely secret; Rosemary Savage’s ways of navigating the reefs and shoals of coming of age are the deft, imaginative ways of a person we sign on with as Ishmael signed on The Pequod.