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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Silver Swan (hardcover, $25), by Benjamin Black

Grade: A

Black’s second novel, a followup to Christine Falls, reads like a play: The narrative proceeds in the third person, so we see the play through the eyes of many of the players, and the scenery is artfully and evocatively described. There is a vivid, three-dimensional quality to Black’s writing. Although each character inhabits his or her own skin, there is a common lethargy that embraces most of them and, unfortunately for my play analogy, most of the characters share a laconic, minimalist approach to their dialogue.

We find Quirke, Phoebe, Mal, and Rose – whose relationship to each other I will decline to expand upon for those of you who have not read the prior book -- two years after the events of Christine Falls. It seems they have spent the two years struggling with what to say to each other, how to account for their tangled relationships. The recent death of a young woman challenges their tentative community.

Quirke is a pathologist in 1950s Dublin. An old college acquaintance calls him out of the blue and asks that he intercede to prevent the autopsy of his recently deceased wife, Deirdre Hunt, aka Laura Swan. After reluctantly acceding to the man’s request, Quirke discovers that the wife’s death was not accidental. It is upon Quirke’s decision to keep this information quiet that the real story begins.

Quirke undertakes an unofficial investigation and finds his private life blending unaccountably into Deirdre’s mystery, as he meets Deirdre’s lover and partner, the lover’s wife, and a back-door abortionist, and hears tales of a mysterious Sufi “doctor.”

Black layers his novel with the investigation in one chapter followed by a chapter in which a portion of Deirdre’s life is brought to light. The author handles beautifully the transition between these alternating narratives.

Throughout the book a few of the characters remark on how “fate” seems to stand almost as a physical entity at points in their lives. When Quirke receives the initial phone call, he strongly feels a presentiment. Later when Phoebe is at a crucial point, she, too, strongly feels that there are some things out of her control. But in the end, the author seems to say, it is what we do for ourselves and to each other that determines our course.

There is a sedate, lugubrious quality to the writing, but it never becomes tiresome, mostly because of the quality of Black’s prose. It should be no surprise to discover that Black is really John Banville, a noted, award-winning Irish writer, who has unashamedly ventured into the mystery genre.

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