Monday, January 20, 2014

Review of The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (Picador, 2007)

In the late 1950s, two years after his fateful investigation into the death of Christine Falls, pathologist Quirke is still working in a Dublin hospital.  He’s made an awkward truce with his daughter, who is now in her early twenties, and he’s given up drink.  When an old acquaintance from his college days asks him not to perform an autopsy on the body of his dead wife to save her from the stigma of suicide, Quirke cautiously agrees.  Deirdre Hunt has been recovered from Dublin Bay.  Only she didn’t drown.  Nevertheless, Quirke decides to keep that information to himself and to perjure himself at the coroner’s hearing.  Fascinated by the case, however, he starts to poke around only to find his daughter having an affair with Deirdre Hunt’s business partner.  Moreover, Inspector Hackett has become interested in the death and Quirke is left wondering if he made the right decision to help Billy Hunt.

Compared to many contemporary crime fiction novels, which have a relatively quick pace and are packed with melodrama or dramatic action, The Silver Swan is quite sedate.  Benjamin Black’s (John Banville) style is understated, atmospheric drama, told with a steady cadence of unfussy prose.  It is well suited to portraying the drab city streets of Dublin and the conservative and reserved society of Ireland in the 1950s and its hidden, seedy underbelly.  The book hinges on two events that at first seemed unlikely: Quirke’s decision to lie about an autopsy and his withdrawn and distant daughter taking up with the victim’s flamboyant business partner.  However, the first makes some sense when placed into the context of Ireland in the 1950s, when suicide carried significant stigma, and the second works well in terms of introducing a certain edge to what is generally a quite a flat story.  The plot is nicely set out and the characters well drawn, with Quirke a reticent, taciturn and troubled investigator.  Overall, a tale that takes a different path to most crime fiction.


Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed this one, Rob. I do like the Quirke character.

col2910 said...

Quirke/Black is on the pile.....not in a mega-rush to get to them though TBH