RUTH REVIEWS: The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

Another intelligent page turner

Crime It takes a lot these days to persuade me to read any fiction other than upbeat crime novels, since I find contemporary so-called literary fiction almost invariably disappointing or unpleasant. Foolishly, I allowed myself to be persuaded into reviewing Anne Enright’s The Gathering, for the Literary Review which made me feel sick (I am squeamish) and which I dismissed as horrid just a few days before she won the Man Booker Prize.

Although I once read a John Banville novel (The Untouchables – a roman à clef about the traitor Anthony Blunt) and liked it, I had no inclination to read his Man Booker prize-winner, The Sea, which sounded lethally depressing, but I let my arm be twisted into reviewing his second crime novel in his Benjamin Black persona – and, being thorough, I first read its predecessor, Christine Falls. These should have plunged me into terminal gloom, being about Quirke, an alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin contemplating a world of lies and silence, pregnant girls exiled to laundries, abducted babies, ruthless clerics, blackmail, drug addiction, sexual predators and plenty more of the same. Nearly but not everything was bad. “Why do I stay?” asks an American woman. “I don’t know. Somehow your grim little country is growing on me.”

A widower, Quirke has a bleak private life and prefers the dead to the living because you know where you are with a corpse: much of his ruminating occurs after he’s done a post mortem and is sitting with his feet on the desk in the office beside the morgue having a relaxing cigarette. “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.”

And yet – because he cannot repress his humanity (“It was so easy to pity the pitiable,” he thinks) – Quirke does involve himself in the affairs of the living despite the consequences. In the first book, acting on his moral sense causes general mayhem within the family into which he was adopted from an orphanage.

In The Silver Swan, he’s fed up with what his job is doing to him. “‘I’m tired of dealing with people’s filth. I’ve spent my life plunged to the elbows in the secrets of others, their dirty little sins . . . One of the first PMs I ever did was on a child, a baby, six months old, a year, I can’t remember. It had been beaten black and blue and then strangled. Its father’s thumbprints were on its throat . . .’ He stopped. ‘What does it matter what people do? I mean, when it’s done it’s done. I nailed that bastard for strangling his child, but that didn’t bring the child back.'”

This is said to yet another of the women with whom Quirke briefly connects. The industrial school of his childhood sabotages his chances of happiness. “There was another version of him, a personality within a personality, malcontent, vindictive, ever ready to provoke, to which he gave the name ‘Carricklea’ . . . Carricklea could not be doing with mere happiness or the hint of it.”

I’VE WONDERED WHY I like these books so much. It is partly because of Black’s skilful evocation of my city when I was a child: he doesn’t go in for set pieces about place, more for telling detail. “The women he was used to wore too many clothes, belts and straps, corsets, rubber roll-ons, and came heaving into his arms with all the voluminous rufflings and strainings of an old-style sailing ship in full rig.” I was fascinated too by the ubiquitous cigarettes and the reminder of how until recently they were an essential prop of social relations. You could flirt with a cigarette or give solace; the offer and receipt of one was aexpression of camaraderie and for the novelist, as for the film director, the giving or taking of cigarettes or the manner in which they were smoked could demonstrate a range of moods from fear to relief and sexual tension to post-coital intimacy.

It is partly too that despite the subject matter, there is no gratuitous nastiness or disgusting imagery.

More important is that Black has produced two highly intelligent, disconcerting, unpredictable and beautifully written page-turners which tell us a great deal about our past and address serious moral issues.

In a sane literary world The Silver Swan would be considered for another Booker prize, but, in fact, Black is unlikely even to be nominated. The literary establishment despises what it calls the genre novel. The notion that a novel should be driven by a compelling narrative is just so yesterday.

The historian and writer Ruth Dudley Edwards’s latest satirical crime novel, Murdering Americans, is published by Poisoned Pen Press

John Banville’s second outing as Benjamin Black is a triumph.

The Silver Swan By Benjamin Black Picador, 345pp. £16.99

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