The Silver Swan
What’s in a name? Not much for Man Booker Prize winner
John Banville, who, writing as Benjamin Black, brings back his
potential series character, Quirke, for a second case.
THE SILVER SWAN --- as in the first book, CHRISTINE FALLS --- is
set in 1950s Dublin, a place rendered as overcast and gloomy.
Quirke is still a persnickety pathologist who spent a good deal of
his time drinking his troubles away. But, as this novel opens, he
has given up the bottle and is mourning the death of Sarah, his
first love. Twenty years ago, circumstances interfered and he got
together with Delia, Sarah’s sister. She seduced him into
marriage, then sadly died in childbirth. Ironically, Quirke gave
the infant girl, Phoebe, to Sarah and her husband Mal to bring up
as their own. They decided that Phoebe would never know the truth.
Now, her “mother[s]” are dead and she is an unhappy
loner who judges her world harshly.
Mal’s father (Phoebe’s presumed grandfather)
“Garret Griffin, or the Judge, as everyone called him, has
been felled by a stroke [at] seventy [three] that paralyzed him
entirely, except for the muscles of his mouth and eyes and the
tendons of his neck.” The tangled web of relationships
between these people began years ago when Griffin rescued Quirke
from Carricklea Industrial School and tried to make him feel part
of the family. The secrets, lies, resentments and jealousies that
bind these people together remain a big burden to everyone involved
in the sordid goings-on.
Then, out of the blue, Quirke receives a call from an old school
acquaintance, Billy Hunt, who asks to set up a meeting. As the two
men awkwardly sit across from each other in a pub, Hunt tells
Quirke that his wife Deidre, who also used the name Laura Swan (in
the beauty-spa business she ran with her partner, Leslie White),
committed suicide. He has just come from identifying the body. That
was bad enough, he says, but to think of her on a slab “cut
up like some sort of carcass… If you’d known her, the
way she was before, how - how alive she was. I can’t bear
it” --- and he implores Quirke not to do a postmortem on the
Deidre was found naked and dead on the rocks beside the body of
water in which she drowned. Her clothes were neatly folded, and her
car was not far away. She left no note, and no one had the least
suspicion that she was depressed or suicidal. Without committing
himself to Hunt’s request, Quirke’s unquenchable
curiosity gets him involved in the quest to find out what really
happened to Mrs. Hunt.
"For Quirke a corpse was a vessel containing a conundrum, the
conundrum being the cause of death. Ethics? It was precisely to
avoid such weighty questions that he had gone in for pathology. He
did prefer the dead over the living. That was what had happened. No
trouble there. Nevertheless he maintains his humanity and his
curiousity forces him to seek out the truth. He expects the corpse
to help him determine cause of death, especially in cases that are
not clear-cut.” And the death of Deidre is just such a
situation, especially “after he had chanced on [a] needle
mark in the woman’s arm.” Thus he goes ahead with the
autopsy, and when he lies to the coroner’s court about the
cause of death, he is further drawn into this twisted case. Quirke
now knows that his wife was probably murdered and is determined to
ferret out the killer or killers.
Deidre’s partner, Leslie, is a con man of the first order.
And he has always been mixed up in some shady deal or other, which
always falls flat and loses money. He is a charmer, and women fall
under his spell. That is what happened to Deidre and later to
Leslie plays an interesting role in this multi-layered thriller. He
is involved with a “spiritual healer,” Dr. Kruetz, who
“is a Sufi [a religion] based on the secret teachings of the
Prophet Muhammad.” His office is otherworldly with its
different teasing scents, vivid colors and arrangements of pillows
in place of western furnishings. When Deidre meets Kruetz, she is
mesmerized and considers him beautiful. He tells her stories and
legends while stressing that love must grow between
“shaykh, sage” and “murid, the
student or apprentice who places himself under the guidance and
care of the shaykh.
As the narrative continues to unfold, readers are on a ride through
the underside of Dublin where pornography, drugs and blackmail
sweep through the lives of the characters. The body count rises,
albeit slowly. This draws Quirke further and further into the
activities of the killer or killers and forces him to face his
A fast-paced, interesting plot, well-defined characters and
evocative prose are the architectural underpinnings of THE SILVER
SWAN. While some red herrings swim across the pages, the big clues
are well placed and not necessarily recognized until the finale.
Readers familiar with the work of Banville will have no trouble
immersing themselves in his second foray into genre fiction, taking
it to new literary heights. These novels need not be read in
sequence, though reading CHRISTINE FALLS first will offer some
insight into the goings-on carried over in THE SILVER SWAN.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 23, 2011