The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black begins in the middle of things with the protagonist, Quirke, puzzling over a note from someone who seems vaguely familiar but whom he does not recall until they meet in a bar. Billy Hunt, a former athletic classmate, informs Quirke, a Dublin pathologist, that his wife has drowned, and Billy pleads that her beautiful body not be disfigured by an autopsy. Quirke reluctantly agrees, only to renege on the promise when he finds a tiny puncture wound on her arm.
At an inquest, Quirke insists that the cause of death was drowning, though he harbors suspicions and spends the rest of the novel learning more than he expected about a host of lives and uncovering the sad truth about Deirdre Hunt’s life and death. His investigation uncovers exploitation, blackmail, drug use, and murder, and his primary motivation has less to do with issues of legality or justice than with simple curiosity and protectiveness.
The novel assumes a knowledge of characters and situations that transpired in the first Black mystery, Christine Falls (2007), with these events occurring about two years later. Quirke has lost his wife, has remained thoroughly alienated from a daughter he abandoned in childhood, and has betrayed his adoptive father, a judge, who has hidden behind his office. Additionally, although Quirke has given up the drink, he must continually struggle with alcoholic urges that haunt him, just as the novel’s events and his shattered life obsess him.
John Banville, who writes his mystery and detective fiction under the nom de plume Benjamin Black, has had a long and distinguished career, writing challenging fictions dating back to 1970. His fourteen novels have garnered serious critical attention, defining him as one of the most subtle and sophisticated of postmodernists. In addition to having won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Whitbread Prize, he was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize for The Sea in 2005. In 2007 he surprised many with his next project, Christine Falls, a noir murder mystery set in 1950’s Dublin that he published, as an open secret, under the pen name of Black. That novel was a finalist for the 2008 Edgar Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thrillers.
Banville has launched a Benjamin Black Web site in which he interviews his alter ego and reveals that to write these latest novels he has rented a small apartment in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, which has encouraged the temporal setting and unique atmosphere of his mysteries. In that interview, Banville admits, “The 1950’s fascinates me. It was a remarkable time, here and in America, paranoid, guilt-ridden, beset by fear and loathing, and still shuddering in the after-effects of the war. A perfect period for a novel, if you incline toward a dark view of human beings.”
This careful attention to place is a major component of all successful detective fiction, whether it be the village world of Agatha Christie or the mean streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Black knows this genre, and while he seeks to incorporate the atmosphere of hard-boiled writers such as Chandler and James M. Cain, he is not content to strictly imitate them.
Quirke is anything but a tough guyhe is stocky and physically maladroit, far from a ladies’ man, and someone who not so much solves a case as he worries it to death, engaging everyone in elliptical conversations. Most detective fictions conclude with the protagonist wrapping up the stray clues, identifying the least-likely suspect, assigning guilt, and solving the case. Quirke puts matters together, to be sure, but he jumps to some erroneous conclusions and essentially argues to let sleeping dogs lie. He is full of suspicions, but in the end he is a thoroughly fallible hero who falls off the wagon and...
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