A review of The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
The Booker Prize-winning Irish author John Banfield, aka Benjamin Black, writes a series of offbeat crime stories about a Dublin-based pathologist named Quirke. The Silver Swan is the second of the five novels he’s written to date. It’s also the first that I’ve read — and it won’t be the last.
Like many of the best crime writers, Black focuses on character, atmosphere, and language as much as on plot. The sure hand of a master stylist is very much in evidence in The Silver Swan. You’ll see it in the dialogue, where the individual speech patterns of his characters are distinctive, and in his lyrical descriptions of Dublin in the rain. If you read this book to the end, you might think you’ve gotten to know Quirke, and you may like him. You might also have a sense of Dublin, even if you’ve never been there.
In The Silver Swan, Quirke is approached by someone he knew (and disliked) at university with a strange request: presenting himself as an old friend, Billy Hunt asks Quirke not to do a postmortem on his young wife, Deirdre, who has apparently committed suicide by drowning herself in the ocean. Billy explains that he just couldn’t stand the thought that her beautiful body would be cut up by knives. For no particular reason — Quirke understands irrational impulses, his own among others — he has every intention of granting Billy’s wish until he discovers the puncture mark of a needle on the young woman’s arm. He’s forced to proceed — and learns, of course, that Deirdre was not a suicide.
In a more traditional crime novel, Quirke would probably join his colleagues in the police in a hunt for the killer, no doubt proving himself a far cleverer detective than the professionals. That’s not what transpires in The Silver Swan. Although he worked with a senior officer on another case (the subject of Black’s first crime novel, Quirke has no formal connection to the police, known as the Garda in Ireland. To prevent Billy Hunt from discovering what he has learned from the autopsy, Quirke lies to the Garda and lies on the stand in the coroner’s court, then undertakes his own, private investigation. This effort leads him into a troubling and complex set of interrelationships involving the murdered woman, her husband, her lover, and her lover’s husband, all the while he engages in a verbal minuet with the police inspector who understands perfectly well that Quirke had lied to him about the autopsy.
Oh, it’s a fine mess, in the best Irish tradition! This is a novel that’s likely to keep you guessing until the final pages.