THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE: by John Banville, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 218 pp. $17.95. WHEN Freddie Montgomery meets Anna, an old friend from Berkeley, Calif., she is driving a sports car. She picks him up. ``She was full of the impatient assurance of the rich,'' Freddie says. She drives fast. She has blood on her shoes. ``A bomb had gone off in a car in a crowded shopping street, quite a small device, apparently, but remarkably effective,'' he explains.
This happens south of Dublin. Freddie Montgomery is the hero of John Banville's new mystery novel, ``The Book of Evidence.'' Freddie is writing from prison. He intends to plead guilty to first degree murder. He did kill the maid who tried to stop him from stealing a painting from his friend's collection.
Banville, literary editor of The Irish Times, has always taken risks with his novels. He is known as a fine experimental novelist who writes beautifully about Ireland and the dualities that haunt modern consciousness. Until now, Banville's novels have escaped the attention of the vast public that consumes mysteries.
When we know whodunit already, when the thing is narrated by the accused from his jail cell, how can we call it a mystery?
The mystery at the center of this mystery novel is the mystery of art.
Freddie studied probability and statistics at Berkeley, where he met his wife. Daphne is a friend of Anna. They form a triangle, then Freddie marries Daphne and gives up his studies. They go to Europe, have a child, and spend his small inheritance. When they run out of money, they borrow some. When the lender gets nasty and wants it back, Freddie returns to Ireland to sell the paintings his father had collected for him.
Freddie is prone to boredom and depression. His world is defined by chance and drift. This makes him a natural for the mystery novel genre. Wandering through Spain with his wife does nothing to change the world view of the science he had so prodigiously mastered; it only allows him to explore the sensuous pole of it, the pull of the flesh.
FREDDIE once wanted to be ``one of those great, cold technicians, the secret masters of the world''; but he becomes a murderer instead. What happens is this. He sees a painting in Anna's collection that quite overwhelms him. It's been attributed to various artists, including Vermeer, but he doubts the attribution. Whoever painted it, the portrait of the young woman gets to him. When he looks at the painting, he's filled with ``a hot, shamefaced awareness of myself, as if somehow I, this soiled sack of flesh, were the one who was being scrutinized, with careful, cold attention.''
Apparently he forgets the goal of his return to Ireland. Obsessed with the painting, he kills a young maid who works for his friend when she tries to stop him from stealing it. After he kills her, he throws the painting in a ditch, abandons the car with the body in it, and returns to the house he is staying in. Freddie knows he is guilty. He waits until the police find him.
Later in prison he writes in his book of evidence: ``I killed her because I could kill her, and I could kill her because for me she was not alive. And so my task now is to bring her back to life ... I am living for two.''
Anna sends him a copy of the painting to pin up in his jail cell. Freddie looks at it and thinks, ``She requires of me some great effort, some tremendous feat of scrutiny and attention, of which I do not think I am capable. It is as if she were asking me to let her live.'' Thus Banville links the aesthetic and the moral. The maid in the painting demands of Freddie exactly what the real maid did: to let her live. As a scientist trained in the materialist worldview, Freddie does not know how to grant independent existence to other human beings. This includes his wife. When Daphne visits him in prison, he is shocked by her tears and accusations. ``I could not speak.... How could I not have seen that behind her reticence there was all this passion, this pain.''
Banville's portrait of Freddie Montgomery is presented in a mystery novel, but it's not so different from his experimental novels. Kept in print in the United States by David Godine, publisher, these novels will not disappoint those who enjoy ``The Book of Evidence.'' Banville is one of Ireland's best writers. In his exploration of the negative space between fact and value, and the dangerous wobble between science and art, he belongs with Jonathan Swift. And like Joyce, Beckett, and Sean O'Faolain, he turns the matter of Ireland into the soul of everyman.