Review of “The Silver Swan” by Benjamin Black

I thought I would try another of John Banville’s pseudonymous mystery series, because sometimes authors get better at mysteries as a series progresses. Then again, sometimes they don’t.

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The main protagonist of this series is Quirke (no first name ever given), who is the head pathologist at the Hospital of the Holy Family in Dublin. It is the 1950s, but two years later than the first book in the series, Christine Falls. Quirke is intrigued after an old friend asks him not to do an autopsy on his young wife, seemingly a victim of suicide by drowning. Of course Quirke has to look into it, and finds the wife didn’t die of drowning at all. He feels a sense of responsibility for the dead, and tries to find out what actually happened to Deirdre Hunt. Even though his investigations get him into trouble, “something in him yearned after the darkness….”

Quirke’s inquiry into Deirdre’s death is told in alternating chapters with Deirdre’s own story provided by flashbacks, and occasional chapters from the point of view of Phoebe, Quirke’s 23-year-old daughter.

Quirke sees Phoebe once a week, but doesn’t understand why she seems angry at him, or at best, distant; he never even considers asking her, or indeed, communicating with her about anything much at all.

All of the women in the book, including Phoebe, are damaged, lonely, and suffering from low self-esteem, and most opt to engage in sexual abasement to add color to their lives.

As with the previous book, the mystery seems only an excuse to expose the bleakness, loneliness, and/or rampant evil in the lives of the characters. Perhaps because of this, some of the plot elements aren’t as tightly coherent as they should be. But they are definitely as dark and dreary as anyone could imagine.

Quirke is an alcoholic now dry for six months, and when he isn’t thinking about how he can’t stand being alone, can’t sleep, and basically, can’t stand his life, he either dwells on dead bodies dissected on the table, or experiences “the dry drinker’s whining, impotent, self-lacerating rage.” In a passage that encapsulates both Quirke’s life and the tone of the entire book, Black writes of Quirke:

He looked both ways along the canal. There was not a soul to be seen. He thought of the long, ashen day ahead of him. He tried to make himself move, to walk, to get away, but in vain; his body would not obey him. He stood there, paralyzed. he did not know where to go. He did not know what to do.”

Evaluation: To descriptors like despondency, hopelessness, bitterness, unhappiness, cynicism, resentment, rampant sexual abuse, and gloominess, one could also add: occasional admirable literary flights of phrasing.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2008

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6 Responses

  1. I read two or three books in this series and liked them, but they were pretty dark. And for some reason I never pursued the series. I think I even have one of the books on my shelves. Although I can’t say WHY I peter out on some series, I know there is something in there that has bored me or turned me off.

  2. I liked Christine Falls better than this, but not enough to make my try the third book.

  3. I’m not sure that all that darkness is what I need right now.

  4. This sounds like an interesting premise, and I sometimes like very dark novels. It’s a shame this book didn’t really work for you.

  5. Oh my, this sounds like a real downer.

  6. I love your evaluation. Ha!

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