The Book of Evidence Summary
by John Banville

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The Book of Evidence Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Freddie Montgomery, a former university lecturer in statistics, is in prison for murder, and he is ready to tell his story. He begins by describing the conditions of the prison he calls home, displaying in his tone a bravado that embraces his experience as a captured animal, a monster. He describes the noises and smells of prison but refuses to speak of the various kinds of darkness he and other prisoners face. This explicit refusal reveals the fear and uncertainty just beneath the controlled, analytical exterior Freddie generally presents.

Freddie introduces his wife, Daphne, and describes their life together, living in various places along the Mediterranean before returning to Ireland. He describes a life of modest luxury, and it becomes evident that they are living beyond their means. They make the acquaintance of a drug dealer named Randolph, and Freddie extorts a “loan” from him under the threat of revealing Randolph’s criminal activities. Randolph gets the money from Aguirre, a loan shark. Freddie does not repay the loan, though, so he receives Randolph’s ear in the mail—a threat from Aguirre. Freddie’s wife and son are held as hostages, so Freddie returns to Ireland to raise money to pay Aguirre and secure his family’s safety.

Eventually, Freddie goes to the home of his mother, Dolly, in Coolgrange, and engages in awkward conversation with her, a talk that escalates into fighting. He is surprised at the intimate nature of her relationship with her friend Joanne, after seeing them embrace and then finding them lying casually together on the bed. Dolly says that Joanne is like the son she never had. Freddie soon finds out, too, that his mother had sold some paintings that he had hoped to sell to raise money so that he could repay Aguirre. Dolly had sold the painting to Helmut Behrens, an art connoisseur, leading Freddie to fly into a rage. Behrens, Freddie’s father, and dealer and gallery owner Charlie French used to buy and sell paintings together.

Freddie leaves for Whitewater, the Behrens estate, to find out the fate of the paintings. His description of Whitewater shows his sensitivity to aesthetic stimuli, and he begins to describe in detail his love for the Portrait of a Woman with Gloves. From Behrens he learns that the paintings sold by his mother were of little value, and that they have been resold. Behrens had bought them from Dolly at an inflated price because of his admiration for her.

Nearly penniless and unable to return to Coolgrange, Freddie takes a room in town. The next day he hatches a half-baked plan to steal the painting that has captivated him. He buys twine, wrapping paper, rope, and a hammer, and rents a car for which he cannot pay.

Freddie returns to Whitewater to steal the painting, and it becomes evident that his interest in the work is not financial; rather, he is captivated by the picture in a kind of aesthetic obsession. He thinks about the picture’s subject, its patron, and its artist, all those persons who had been involved in the circumstances of its creation. As his plan for stealing the painting falls apart, he compels a servant, Josephine Bell, to help him carry the framed work to his car. She is forced into the car, but she fights back. Freddie then beats her with a hammer. As he drives with her through the city, people assume that he is transporting an accident victim to the hospital. He drives Bell’s body to the seaside and ditches his bloodstained jacket, the painting, the car, and his unfortunate victim.

Without money, clothes, or a plan, Freddie returns to the pub and meets up again with Charlie. He goes home with him and ends up staying with him for the next ten days or so. Freddie reads about the manhunt in the newspaper, and he is beginning to understand something about the life he had taken. He buys clothes with Charlie’s credit cards and follows people around on the street, as if realizing for the first time the reality of other people. He drinks heavily. He...

(The entire section is 1,449 words.)