Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

Though I didn’t feel that Benjamin Black’s first novel Christine Falls worked as well as most people did, he was successful in capturing a certain noir atmosphere of 1950s Ireland that intrigued me enough to follow up with The Silver Swan. Black, of course, is the literary alter ego of John Banville, widely regarded as one of the best current writers in the English language; shamefully, this is something I can’t vouch for as I’ve never read anything published under his own name.

The Silver Swan picks up tow years after the conclusion of Christine Falls, and medical examiner Quirke is approached by an old university classmate, whom he hardly remembers. Over coffee and tea, the former schoolmate tells Quirke that his wife has been discovered as a suicide, drowned in Dublin Bay. He implores the pathologist to see that she isn't subjected to a forensic dissection, as the law requires. Quirke agrees, but no sooner does the body pass into his custody than he notices a needle mark on the arm and begins to slice his way to the truth, which is that the woman didn't drown. As Quirke unravels her deceptive past, the trail leads to a fashio
nable beauty salon called the Silver Swan that the dead woman once ran, to a sinister Englishman and to an intricate web of deceit and blackmail in which the doctor's own daughter, distant and bitter, appears to be heavily involved. Best of all, everything builds to a credible and strangely satisfying conclusion.

Two things make this novel superior to its predecessor: the highly developed character of Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, and the relatively limited scope of the conspiracy that is uncovered. In an interview at The Elegant Variation, Black claims his agent thinks he’s in love with Phoebe, and her focus as a central character whose perspective informs much of the story would bear this out. I would be unsurprised if she were more dominant in the next novel in the series than her father.

The conspiracy in Christine Falls involving both Quirke’s adopted father and father in law, not to mention the larger Catholic church in both New England and Ireland, stretched the credibility of the mystery. With a relatively smaller scale of mystery in this novel, one enjoys it because it seems so much less grandiose. In fact, I often was reminded of the plot in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as I read along; consequential, but not earth shattering.

I mused a couple of months ago about the choice of a pen name for these noir mysteries, concluding that it was fun for Banville and that was reason enough to explain it. But after reading Jim Ruland’s very good interview at TEV, it almost seems like Black/Banville are not as interchangeable as all that. In fact, one isn’t exactly sure who the interviewee is. I’ll be excited to read more about Quirke sometime in the future, but for now perhaps I should actually pick up my copy of Banville’s The Sea.

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