The Silver Swan

Benjamin Black is John Banville reincarnated as a crime writer, and his coming into being is surely a dimension of the author’s obsession with the disunity of personal identity. As Black, however, Banville has jettisoned the heavy bales of philosophical ballast that weighed down — or deepened, if you prefer — the novels written under his own name. That’s good news to the lightweights among us who admire Banville’s potent visual and olfactory imagery, pungent style, and historical mischief making but who also find that a little philosophical rumination, not to say scab picking, goes a very long way.

The Silver Swan follows Christine Falls, the first of the Black oeuvre. It is two years since we last met the central character, Garret Quirke, a Dublin pathologist and a Gloomy Gus of Banvillian proportions, so shy of intimacy that even a home-cooked meal perturbs him. His lost love, Sarah, whom we left in the previous novel feeling dizzy, is dead of a brain tumor; his onetime benefactor and “great and secret sinner,” the Judge, has been paralyzed by a stroke; and Phoebe, his recently if unhappily reclaimed daughter, now lives in Dublin in a state of emotional bleakness. Quirke, himself, has given up drink, though the crapulousness of the last book has been replaced by fierce cravings, “every parched nerve crying out to be slaked.”

You can’t really win in this world, but then it is the Ireland of the 1950s, a hard, dingy, secretive decade, suffused with a moral queasiness left from the Emergency (as Ireland’s condition as a neutral country during the Second World War was called). Everyone here suffers some form of spiritual desolation, a state perfectly exemplified by Quirke’s widowed friend Mal, who has been given a dog by his daughter: “It was a stunted, wire-haired thing the color of wet sacking?. It was plain the dog and master disliked each other, the dog barely tolerating the man and the man seeming helpless before the dog’s unbiddably doggy insistences. It was odd, but ownership of the dog made Mal seem more aged, more careworn, more irritably despondent. As if reading Quirke’s thoughts, he said defensively, ‘He’s company. Of a sort.’ ”

The novel is set, for the most part, during an especially hot summer in Dublin, and the drawn-out days of deliquescent, sweating flesh are quite as insalubrious as those of the Irish winter’s crepuscular damp. An old university acquaintance, Billy Hunt, gets in touch with Quirke, imploring him to prevent an autopsy on the body of his wife, a woman who called herself Laura Swan in her capacity as proprietor of a beauty parlor. She appears to have committed suicide by swimming out to sea. Wretched, “a bulging sack of grief and misery and pent-up rage,” Hunt claims that he cannot bear the idea of his wife’s body being violated.

Hmmm, we think, and so does Quirke. A pathologist to his unamiable core, he feels “the old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what is hidden — to know.” He discovers a needle mark on the woman’s arm and evidence that she died not from drowning but from a drug overdose.

For all Quirke’s appetite for discovery, what follows is not so much an investigation as a perambulation — a time-honored Irish literary tradition, after all — through the streets of Dublin with excursions to Clontarf and Howth. Along the way, clues and coincidences swim out of the summer’s mephitic ether, drawn into Quirke’s darksome orbit by fate’s gravitational pull. Indeed, for a while, the plot seems to be actually generated by Quirke’s inner state, going so far as to appropriate through brazen happenstance his daughter, Phoebe, the focus of his obsessive self-castigation. But intermittent flashbacks to Laura Swan’s life as seen by herself soon give the book real narrative muscle and another voice. It is one of cagey optimism, daring, and, finally, dismay when the doomed woman learns the worst and walks “out into the summer morning feeling as if she were the sole survivor of a huge and yet entirely soundless disaster.” These scenes trace a path to death: from her marriage to her involvement with a certain Dr. Hakeem Kreutz, “spiritual healer,” and, finally, to her affair with her business partner, Leslie White, and its terrible d?nouement. He is a cruel and creepy narcissist with hair the color of “burning magnesium” — “a born suede shoe wearer,” Quirke reflects with distaste. A couple of swatches of narrative from this creature’s point of view afford us a glimpse of exquisite malignity.

Benjamin Black’s sensibility, dour and doomy and lonesome as hell, pervades the novel, yet it never drags down the lithe prose, prose more supple and unerring than Banville’s, whose way with words — though just as inspired — suffers bouts of sclerotic ontology. Or so it strikes the shamelessly hedonistic reader. What we like is people and places and plot. We like the image of Quirke as “a huge, dangerous, baffled baby, needful and destructive.” We are transported by Black’s brilliantly conjured settings and his precise evocations of time and place. Sights, sounds, smells and the whole feel of this world are wonderfully conveyed and are bliss to read. At Howth harbor: “a squad of trawlermen was mending an immense fishing net strung between poles, vaguely suggestive of harpists in their deft, long-armed reachings and gatherings?. A grinning dog raced along the edge of the pier, barking wildly at the gulls bobbing among the boats on the harbor’s oily swaying, iridescent waters.” Witnessing this, even Quirke feels “the possibility of happiness.”

But it is not to be — for Quirke at any rate. In the end, the realm he inhabits is a grim one of murder, sadistic sex, pornography, drugs, blackmail, embezzlement, brutal beatings, and general sneakiness. On the other hand, fun lovers that we are, all that makes us happy too.