Monday, March 24, 2008

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt, 2008)

Out of my blind spot, it was as if Quirke himself had emerged from the shadows and tapped me on the shoulder. The latest Benjamin Black novel, his second, was out. His first book, Christine Falls (my brief review here) had rendered me off-kilter as I absorbed the fact that John Banville, a novelist whose work I consistently followed and enjoyed, had assumed another name and produced a crime novel. A very good crime novel. A novel which had, unbeknownst to me, slipped into circulation and produced more than a ripple. A pleasant surprise.

In The Silver Swan, we are once again in 1950s Dublin; two years have passed since the Christine Falls affair, and Quirke, the somewhat melancholy consultant pathologist, is surrounded by the fallen, the wounded, and the ghosts of his past. There are hints that Quirke is coming to suspect that his actions have deeper roots than the desire for the truth, or justice; that there are unconscious motivations reaching back into his orphaned childhood. Quirke is a divided, conflicted individual who is possessed with a continuing unease with figures of institutional authority, religious or otherwise. His determined efforts in the Christine Falls case had dire effects upon those close to him and he is now doing a personal form of penance. Twice a week he visits his adoptive father, Judge Griffin, now paralysed upon a hospital bed and non-conversant. And once a week he dines with his daughter Phoebe in the attempt to start afresh and bring her back to him. His relationship with the Judge's son Dr. Malachy Griffin is governed more by a casual truce.

In this penance he is distanced further from the shared life of his fellow Dubliners by his half-year of teetotaling temperance. This abstinence of alcohol--although he does imbibe one glass of wine when dining with his daughter, which has a religious overtone in a way--has sharpened his olfactory glands; smells, odors and fragrances create a rich texture in his awareness which includes the "smell of the recently bereaved," a smell he detects in Billy Hunt, a long-forgotten college friend who has approached him to ask a favour. Billy Hunt's wife, Dierdre, was found washed ashore on Dalkey Island, a possible suicide, her clothes neatly folded on the seat of her car. Billy, possibly for religious reasons, doesn't want his wife's body to have a postmortem. The thought of it disturbs him greatly.

It is from this unusual request, and the discovery of a small puncture mark on Dierdre's arm, that Quirke, gradually, ineluctably, finds himself drawn into the search for answers. At first he begins to heed his better judgement warning him to avoid by all means looking into the drowning, but when he discovers his daughter Phoebe's slight connection with Dierdre Hunt and her dubious business partner, that "hollow man" Leslie White, Quirke inevitably follows it up. And so it is, during the sunny warm weather of the "dead center" of a Dublin summer, that Quirke finds himself tossing a pebble into the calm waters of his penance, and we, as readers, are well and truly off.

The author skillfully weaves the life story of Dierdre Hunt, from her impoverished childhood growing up in the Flats, to her interactions with the Anglo-Irish in the fashionable quarter. The backgrounds of other characters are also fleshed out with painterly effect, enough to make us feel they have a pulse. Even with nameless characters the author can create a picture: here, through Quirke's eyes we see a barman:

He was young, with a short-back-and-sides haircut and a pustular neck. He wore a white shirt and a black waistcoat. Quirke noted a frayed cuff, a greasy shine at the pockets of the trousers. This country. Someone had recently offered Quirke a job in Los Angeles. Los Angeles! But would he go? A man could lose himself in Los Angeles as easily as a cuff link. (228)

I read the novel fairly quickly the first time, carried along by the story and the desire to discover the answers, answers that kept me guessing till the very last pages by the clever use of indirection and misdirection. It is a better crime novel than Christine Falls and very well made. With the second reading I enjoyed finding all the clues and foreshadows, and the wonderful weaving of the backcloth which I gleaned too quickly the first time round. We are far from the foggy cold wintry wet Dublin, but still the author creates masterful touches which make even the longest days of the summer fraught with atmosphere. There are many examples that deal with the sun such as:

The day was hot already, with shafts of sunlight reflecting like brandished swords off the roofs of motorcars passing by outside in the smoky, petrol-blue air. (37)


By four o'clock the daylight was already curling insidious fingers round the edges of the curtains in his bedroom. (35)

These descriptions tend to follow Quirke about--like death-- as they are his perceptions, his conceits:

The bricks of the houses he passed by seemed today a deeper shade of oxblood, and in the gardens lush, damp dahlias hung their scarlet heads as if exhausted after the effort of coming into such prodigious bloom. He turned in at the gate and rang the doorbell and waited, eyeing the violent flowers. He took off his hat and held it in his hands; the dark felt was finely jeweled with mist. (266)

There seems to be a suggestive parallel between Quirke's trajectory with that of his daughter's: Quirke involves himself with Kathryn White, while his daughter Phoebe becomes involved with Leslie White and we come to see how these damaged souls, damaged each in their own way, share troubled motivations. Quirke distrusts the "tentacles" of coincidence which have brought them into the same vortex,but the action takes place in the south east quarter of Dublin, and as one writer wrote, "coincidence traced back far enough, leads to inevitability." Phoebe lives on Harcourt Street, and works in the Maison des Chapeaux on Grafton Street; Dierdre Hunt's business the Silver Swan hair salon was just around the corner on Anne Street. Quirke lives on Upper Mount Street, and the mysterious Dr. Kreutz lives in a basement flat on Adelaide. Although other characters live in the suburbs, they spiral round each other, sometimes passing each other unbeknownst until the resolutions at the very end of this novel--one example reminded me of a scene from one of my favourite recent films, L'Homme du train.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and now anticipate the next. Could it involve Dublin's Phoenix Park whose gates Quirke and Inspector Hackett--with his hat--had approached but never entered? Or could we see Quirke doing some consulting in Los Angeles? That might be interesting. However, Dublin is such a wonderful character in itself, it would be a shame to leave it. I have yet to visit Dublin. Yet to follow in my father's footsteps searching his Dundalk roots. One day perhaps. Until then, I shall have to wait for the next installment to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of walking the streets of another era.

To keep up to date with everything Black, there is an excellent website for Benjamin Black, which includes a short video of John Banville/Benjamin Black discussing his work and Dublin itself.

-map from the front free endpaper of Dublin: A Study in Environment by John Harvey(London: B. T. Batsford, 1949).

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