"My Lord, when you ask me to tell the court in my own words, this is what I shall say." Thus begins "The Book of Evidence," the sardonic, self-pitying, occasionally witty, and ultimately unreliable narrative of Frederick Charles St. John Vanderveld Montgomery (a/k/a Freddie Montgomery). I say "unreliable" quite consciously, because Freddie Montgomery says as much throughout the novel, another in a long line of remarkable fictions from John Banville, perhaps Ireland's finest living author. As Freddie relates at the end of his tale, "I thought of trying to publish this, my testimony. But no. I have asked Inspector Haslet to put it into my file, with the other, official fictions . . . [H]ow much of it is true? All of it. None of it. Only the shame."
And what is Freddie Montgomery's story? An educated and brilliant academic, he married a young woman, Daphne, whom he met while teaching at Berkeley. He left academia for a dissolute life on a Mediterranean island. He became indebted there to apparently dark and unseemly characters, left his wife and young child behind, and returned to his family home in Ireland to obtain enough money to repay his debts. While in Ireland, he committed a brutal and seemingly inexplicable murder, fled the scene of his crime in a kind of "Lost Weekend" of drunken binging and obsession with his dark deed, and, ultimately, is apprehended and imprisoned. He writes the dark, powerful, obsessive interior monologue of "The Book of Evidence" while sitting in prison awaiting his trial.
The reader is never quite certain what to make of Freddie Montgomery. He is, indeed, a disturbed and disturbing narrator, someone who kills an innocent woman for no apparent reason, with chilling sang-froid. He bludgeons her with a hammer and then wonders, as if he were the victim: "How could this be happening to me-it was all so unfair. Bitter tears of self-pity squeezed into my eyes."
Freddie Montgomery's narrative is lucid, but it's not clear that he is entirely sane. There is complete lack of feeling. He seems a psychopath, or worse. Perhaps he's simply mad. Perhaps he is commenting on himself when he says, "Madmen do not frighten me, or even make me uneasy. Indeed, I find that their ravings soothe me. I think it is because everything, from the explosion of a nova to the fall of dust in a deserted room, is to them of vast and equal significance, and therefore meaningless."
There is a cold anomie that pervades Freddie's actions, his reflections, his feelings. It reminds the reader of "Crime and Punishment" or "Notes from Underground". But there is also a dark humor and a sleight of hand working here that is absent from the great Russian master. Perhaps Irish sensibility is creeping in, perhaps just the penumbra of the post-modern. Whatever it is, it works.