The Silver Swan
By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt, 288 pp., $25
When an old school chum, more friend than acquaintance, calls asking a favor, Dublin pathologist Garret Quirke ought to be alarmed. He vaguely recalls Billy Hunt as red-faced and jovial, too much of a jock to finish his medical training, and a combination of nostalgia and guilt - for not immediately remembering Hunt - sucks him in. Hunt has a problem. He's been overwhelmed by grief, since his beautiful younger wife was fished out of Dublin Bay nude, an apparent suicide. So he asks Quirke if he can arrange for his lovely Deidre, who also went by the name Laura Swan, to not be autopsied. But Quirke is both human and good at his job, so when he receives the body and notices a needle mark on the arm, he has to delve further.
Hunt, as Quirke knows, has reasons to cover up a suspicious death. This is Ireland, in the 1950s, and suicide is still both shameful and a sin. But Quirke, making his second appearance in crime fiction, has an ambivalent relationship with the truth as well. After the harrowing experience and subsequent coverup of last year's "Christine Falls," he is not keen to expose another crime. Although he finds evidence that the young woman did not die by drowning, he lies to the coroner's court. But even if the taciturn pathologist has no faith in the justice system, he wants to know what happened, and soon he is retracing the dead woman's last days.
In this second mystery, author Benjamin Black (a pseudonym for the Booker Award-winning novelist John Banville) once again brings readers back into the gloomy and repressed world of mid-20th century Dublin. The writing, once more, is wonderfully evocative. As Quirke recalls his workhouse youth, for example, he takes keen notice of the city around him, with its "sagging pall of clouds" and constant smokers. When the point of view flips back to the victim, the scene is still as grim. Deirdre/Laura came from an equally harsh background, growing up desperately poor with an abusive father. But she had dreams, and "had only bided her time until she could get out and start her real life." That life not only included Hunt, but also a dubious half-Indian spiritual healer and a louche business partner with striking silver hair. As these two main characters' narratives work toward each other, with occasional insights into Hunt and others, the author shows us how such disparate paths could collide in tragedy.
But although Black is a beautiful writer, with characters as vividly drawn as any in fiction, as a crime novelist he falls a bit flat. Coincidence plays too big a role in the plot, with characters constantly passing each other on Dublin's busy streets and relationships (including Quirke's daughter and Deirdre's business partner) springing up out of nowhere. In some ways, these coincidences don't matter. Black gives us Dublin as a neighborhood, where perhaps two young women would have noticed the same dashing man. And the parallels between all their lives, particularly the strained father-daughter relationships throughout, would make these young women vulnerable to the same kind of casually evil man.
Ultimately, such plot failings may not matter. Black has created a wonderful protagonist in Quirke. Tortured and guilt-ridden, six months sober and aching to drink, and just a bit more curious and perceptive than he would choose to be, Quirke is a natural detective. Even when he wants to cover up the truth, he can't. No one will thank him, he knows from the start. But that's just another burden he must carry.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cattery Row."