The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

Quirke, a bulky lonely pathologist at the Hospital of the Holy Family in 1950’s Dublin, aches for a drink. Evenings stretch out before him endlessly, his nose twitches at the scent of cigars or perfume, due to their automatic sensoral association with alcohol. Life is unbearable. He white-knuckles it. When The Silver Swan (sequel to Christine Falls) opens, Quirke has been “off the bottle” for six months. The Silver Swan, like Christine Falls is a crime novel, a Dublin noir, written by John Banville under a pseudonym, Benjamin Black. And while the crimes in both of these books reveal the underbelly of repressed 1950s Ireland in all its dirt and shame, one of the strengths of these amazing books is the character of Quirke, and how sensitively and specifically he is drawn. As I was reading The Silver Swan, Quirke’s bone-deep ache for a drink was so acute, and expressed so perfectly, that I started wanting a drink myself.

He needed a drink. Odd, how that need waxed and waned. Days might go by without a serious thought of alcohol; at other times he shivered through endless hours clenched on himself, every parched nerve crying out to be slaked. There was another self inside him, one who hectored and wheedled, demanding to know by what right he had imposed this cruel abstinence, or whispering that he had been good, oh so good, for so long, for months and months and months, and surely by now had earned one drink, one miserable little drink?

In Christine Falls, Quirke found himself investigating a crime that led to the doors of the prominent family who had taken him in when he was a workhouse boy. The echoes of that still resound in The Silver Swan, where Quirke now lives in a world where he had taken on the Big Boys and won; however, the victory is a shallow one. It perhaps would have been better to let the secrets lie in the deep. This is a very Irish sensibility. Quirke has a daughter, Phoebe, who grew up thinking another man was her father. That is all out in the open now, too. Phoebe is an imperious young woman who dresses severely in black, and Quirke is deathly afraid of her. He wants a relationship with her, but one of his defining characteristics is a sense of shame so deep that it bars him from the human family: He is so awful, so terrible, that he should not ask for anything more from life. He is lucky to have “gotten away with things” thus far. Therefore, he sits across the table from her on their weekly breakfast dates, and tries to make conversation, wondering who she is, what she is like, and how he can ever break through. His alcoholism hovers over the entirety of the book like an afterimage, a deeply-made sunlit impression on the eyes, still there when it is dark. Nobody can believe he has quit drinking, which gives you an idea of how bad it was, and how much he was defined by his habits. He has ruined his relationships. He has burned bridges. His job brings him into daily contact with the forces of evil, and he finds that difficult to reconcile with the priggish public face of propriety that he sees all around him. But what he finds even more difficult is navigating the world sober. The book aches for a drink.

One of the strongest elements of Christine Falls was its evocation of mood. This is a world John Banville knows well, Dublin in the 1950s, long long before the Celtic Tiger, and he really taps into the small-town nature of life there, the gossip, the quiet. What this respectable surface is hiding is corruption, decay, moral apathy, which strikes right at the heart of the Catholic Church. Banville is not an issues writer, his stuff does not fit in neatly with Book Club concerns, but here in his Benjamin Black novels, he seems freer, angrier. These are titanically angry books. It is well-trod ground for Irish writers, obviously, and most contemporary Irish fiction has social criticism of some kind in it. It is a localized literature. Provincial, to some degree. It is concerned with itself. As any good literature should be. Through that concern with the local, the telescope opens up into the universal. As Thomas Hardy once said (he, who was often criticized for his provincialism): “A certain provincialism is invaluable. It is the essence of individuality, and is largely made up of that crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done.” This is the realm of the Benjamin Black novels.

Genre fiction can be tough. Often, when a well-established writer tries his hand at genre fiction, it can seem either like he is slumming, or as though it’s a gimmick. Michael Chabon, a fantastic writer, one of the best American writers today, has been dipping into genre fiction repeatedly over the last years, since his masterpiece The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon appears to be on a mission to “legitimize” genre fiction, and I think that that may be part of the problem, although I have enjoyed some of his experiments. Like Quentin Tarantino, who is on a mission to celebrate his passions as a boy (comic books, kung fu movies, etc.), Chabon has written a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, an adventure story based on the works for children by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, Summerland, a swashbuckling historical adventure, Gentlemen of the Road, and a supposedly hard-bitten Dashiell Hammett crime story mixed with dystopian universe, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I am sure Chabon is having a blast, although some of these I found insufferable. He’s enough of a favorite of mine that I will read anything he writes, but there are times when I think he is “dabbling”, and that really comes across. On the flip side, writing is one of the most strenuous activities you can do, especially if you have been famous almost from the get-go, as Chabon was. It tires you out. Perhaps he is having fun and gathering his strength for something big. I have no way of knowing. I very much appreciate his dedication to genre fiction, which has often been treated as the bastard stepchild of more serious work, which is very unfair. One of the funniest things about Yiddish Policeman’s Union is that Chabon seemed to feel (he said so in interviews) that he really had written in a hard-boiled prose, challenging himself to keep his sentences brief and cold and clear, when the absolute opposite is the case. A flashy writer with a daunting vocabulary, that book is perhaps the most ornate of all of his works, and I only mention it because of Chabon saying, repeatedly, that he had worked so hard to write in a different style. He is too close to it to see it, perhaps. Regardless, the man is a star, and I’ll follow that star wherever he goes, but he stands, for me, as an example of someone who, without knowing it, gives off the feeling that he is slumming. Just a little bit. That his other books are work, and this is play. This is understandable, as I mentioned, especially if you are a writer who has gained a serious reputation for writing big important books. Michael Chabon burst onto the scene with Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel (P.S.), fully formed as a writer, seemingly. He was in his early 20s, and the book was (still is) dazzling. John Banville is a similar case, with a heavy-hitting glittering reputation, which has just intensified in recent years, with The Sea, and winning The Booker. There are shackles involved, although it may seem ungrateful to even mention it. But it’s the truth of the matter. Art is a tricky business. You can’t write on demand. If you have a reputation with a capital R, it can hem you in, it can create expectations, it can be daunting. Writer’s block is a very real thing. Banville created the pseudonym, Benjamin Black, in order to get out from under the whole John Banville (TM) thing, and seems surprised himself at how much he took to it and how much fun he is having. As John Banville, he crafts every sentence meticulously, working on a book for months, years. As Benjamin Black, he knocks them out in a couple of weeks. Now why is that? Banville is eloquent on the matter in interviews (if you click on the John Banville tag to this post, you can find some links to interviews where he talks about that very thing), and I love the idea of shedding something that no longer works, even temporarily, and trying something new. It takes a huge act of courage. Banville didn’t do this sneakily. He openly admits to being Benjamin Black, and even, sometimes, talks about Benjamin Black as though he is an actual person. Unlike Chabon, who cannot quite suppress his natural tendency towards fancy poetic writing, Banville submits wholeheartedly to the rigors of the genre, so much so that I read The Sea and Christine Falls back to back, and was shocked that it was by the same author. Whereas I always can tell when it’s Chabon at the wheel. If it seems like I am slamming Chabon, I am not. I am fascinated by his journey as an artist, and I love him for continuing to take risks, and also, for pleasing himself. Not an easy task when everyone just wants you to write The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Part Two.

Christine Falls was told entirely from Quirke’s perspective, and here, in The Silver Swan, he switches it up a bit. A girl was found naked in the river. Her clothes were folded neatly on a rock, and her car was parked there. It seems clear it was a suicide. Quirke, in the opening chapter, gets a strange call, out of the blue, from an old classmate, a Billy Hunt, who wants to see him. Billy Hunt has just lost his wife, it was the girl who drowned herself, and he begs Quirke not to do an autopsy because he can’t bear the thought of her body being cut open. This is, naturally, a suspicious request, and Quirke warily agrees. But once he does the autopsy, and finds a small needle-mark in the dead girl’s arm, he ignores his promise to Billy Hunt, and does an autopsy. The perspective then switches, to Deirdre, the girl on the slab. We learn of her life, who she was, and what brought her to this point.

At school they used to call her carrots, of course. She did not mind: she knew they were just jealous, the lot of them, except the ones who were too stupid to be jealous and on that account not worth bothering about. Her hair was not really red, not rusty red like that of some other girls in school – especially the ones whose parents were originally from the country and not genuine Dubliners like hers were – but a shining reddish gold, like a million strands of soft, supple metal, catching the light from all angles and glowing even in the half dark. She could not think where it had come from, certainly not direct from either of her parents, and she took no notice when she overheard her Auntie Irene saying something one day about “tinker hair” and giving that nasty laugh of hers.

Chapters go back and forth, from Quirke, becoming obsessed with the case, being drawn in deeper and deeper, to Deirdre, still alive, making the choices that will end her up in the river. It’s a device that doesn’t quite work. While Deirdre is a fascinating character, a girl who grew up in the slums and would do anything with anyone to get out (she’s definitely on the psychopath spectrum, there’s a flat affect with this girl), I missed Quirke in those sections. The strength of Christine Falls was that we followed this one guy, step by step, as he is led down the maze, more and more horrified and enraged at what he discovers … but we never know more than he knows. It is the story of a man working a case, following leads, asking unwanted questions, prying his nose in where he does not belong, and not until the very end does the vast conspiracy lay itself out to plain view, and by that point, we are as stunned as Quirke is. Deirdre, while interesting, is not as interesting as Quirke is, and the strength of this type of fiction, this genre, is in the lead guy – the underdog gumshoe, working through long lonely nights, trying to put the pieces together. The dead girl on the table is interesting because she is a mystery, and her dead body holds all the clues as to what happened to her, but he needs to look very closely, he needs to try to get inside her world, he needs to go very calm and very still to try to let the dead girl talk to him. Pathologists and forensic physicians talk about this kind of deathly relationship all the time. Their job is to examine evidence and let it talk to them. By allowing Deirdre to talk, albeit in that distant third-person voice, Black dilutes the intellectual and investigative thrust of the novel. How much more powerful to have Deirdre come to life for us, as readers, only through what everyone says about her. Nobody has anything nice to say, and everyone has an opinion. But she’s dead. There is a coverup going on. Even if the girl was a tramp, she doesn’t deserve that. Quirke must be her advocate, when nobody wants him to do such a thing.

Despite the weakness of the alternating chapters, the crime aspect of The Silver Swan is as strong as can be, and Quirke, in his investigation, comes across a host of unsavory characters, memorably awful and some not so awful: Leslie White, the dead girl’s business partner (and something more, perhaps), with platinum silver hair and a sociopath’s comfort with himself and his actions, his unhappy wife Kate (a wonderful character, whom Quirke goes to interview one day and finds himself in bed with her), Maisie Haddon, the blowsy painted-rouge abortionist with a soft spot for Quirke, an Indian quack-doctor who offers “spiritual healing” named Kreutz, and the spectacle of chip-on-the-shoulder lower-class resentment that is Billy Hunt. We meet characters we met already in Christine Falls, and we begin to see how things are settling out. It does not look good. Relationships were shattered in the former book and people are still picking up the pieces.

Dublin itself is a character in the book, as it was in Christine Falls, and Black paints a portrait of a haunted empty space, full of whispering, and silence, and as though someone has just exited. Empty sidewalks are palpable with invisible presences, those who just stood there before. It’s creepy. Quirke, a haunted man himself, has perhaps externalized his own sense of isolation onto his environment.

Arrived at the shabby Georgian house in Upper Mount Street where he lived, he closed the front door soundlessly behind him and went softly along the hall and up the stairs. He always felt somehow an intruder here, among these hanging shadows and this silence.

The atmosphere is full of ghosts.

The garden’s mingled fragrances seemed for a second a breath out of the past, a past that was not theirs, exactly, but rather one where their younger selves still lived somehow in a long-gone and yet unaging present.

The whole book is full of beautiful elegiac writing like that.

It is a strength of the book that I was kept guessing until the very end. One person surged forward as the prime suspect, and then subsided, then another one came into the spotlight, only to step back. The Silver Swan is wonderful in that you get to spend time with deliciously awful characters, and yet you know the author has his eye on the ball at all times: Who killed Deirdre Hunt?

What I am left with, however, is not the plot, nor my quibbles with the Deirdre narrative. What I am left with is an image of a man, trying to do what is right, and all the while, at every second, his fingers itch to take up the bottle.

He could feel the first fizzings of the desperation that often assailed him in these summer twilights.

It is a torment of an almost existential nature, although Black details the physical agony of withdrawal as well. Not to mention the social implications, and how Quirke must redefine his entire life now, and is it too late? Has he burned too many bridges? He wants redemption for poor drowned Deirdre Hunt, but all along the question nags: Is it too late for he himself to be redeemed?

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4 Responses to The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

  1. Jeff says:

    That is funny about Chabon. I thought “The Final Solution” was dull beyond belief, and to be honest I don’t remember a thing about it. I really liked “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” but not because it was a great detective novel. To give a couple of contemporary examples, if I want to read great detective fiction, I’ll stick with Michael Connelly and Robert Crais.

  2. sheila says:

    I liked Yiddish Policeman’s Union, too.

    Hope you get around to reading Benjamin Black’s stuff. It’s great.

  3. Jeff says:

    I’ve added it to my list, which unfortunately is about 100 books long right now.

  4. sheila says:

    I so relate. They’re pretty quick reads. Start with Christine Falls.

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