Black, Benjamin - 'The Silver Swan'
Incurably curious pathologist Quirke is back, in John Banville's second novel written as Benjamin Black. It's two years since the events of CHRISTINE FALLS, and Quirke has given up the drink. He and his daughter aren't on good terms, his step-father's suffered a severe stroke, and his step-brother's lonely and mourning the death of his wife. A bleak picture in '50s Dublin, then. Things threaten to become even more interesting when Billy Hunt, an old school-friend Quirke barely remembers, calls him and asks a favour: his wife has been found drowned, a suspected suicide, and could Quirke please see that an autopsy is not performed. Billy can't bear the thought of his wife body under the pathologist's scalpel. Quirke, being Quirke, agrees but does one anyway after he notices a suspicious mark on the dead woman's skin. It seems he is right to be suspicious, but all that he finds only begs more questions, questions Quirke begins to worry away at, slowly picking his way through a puzzle of drugs, messy finances, and adultery, to reveal the answer.
It's possible that Banville is the best writer at work in the genre at the moment, in terms of artfulness at least. His prose is simply brilliant, gorgeous and evocative and poetic. The sentences he writes stun, the descriptions of the people and the city seem lovingly penned. However, there are moments when you get the sense he's working on autopilot with these books. Every now and then, a clunker, which would never happen in a book written under the real name. I read somewhere that he writes them very quickly, and if you were to compare the writing here to the writing in, for example, THE SEA, I can certainly believe that. If his writing is this good when he's not even really trying, if he were to spend the time on a crime novel that he spends on a normal piece of fiction, imagine the result!
Quirke is a stunning character, too. Troubled, determined, dogged, melancholy, tee-total here, Banville furnishes him with dimension and makes him fascinating with absolute ease. The characterisation of Quirke alone is reason enough to read the series. As would be the atmosphere of the novel: vaguely sordid, repressed, a little desperate, dark, with everything seeming sinister.
The only area where Banville is less than brilliant is the plotting. CHRISTINE FALLS was a little too predictable in this department, though with a brilliant end. The plot of THE SILVER SWAN is actually quite simple, but Banville moves it along at a perfect pace and this time ensures that there's enough the reader doesn't know to keep them interested in that department. There are no great shocks (there are, after all, only about three scenarios which could prove to be the truth), but it's all developed excellently. There's no punch at the end as there was with the last novel, but the whole thing is more satisfying over all. I can't wait for the next… (Apparently called THE LEMUR, and to be serialised in The New York Times…)
Fiona Walker, England