When the first Benjamin Black crime story appeared – Christine Falls (2006) which I reviewed here – there was no mention anywhere that this name was a pseudonym for John Banville, the highly acclaimed Irish novelist, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea – reviewed here. Banville had told the literary world that he was going to write a crime story, but there was nothing to alert an unsuspecting public that this was it. With The Silver Swan (2007), Black’s second crime story, the cover makes it quite clear that this is John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. And this is fair enough, because what Benjamin Black writes isn’t your normal crime story – there’s too much Banville in it for that.
This book is again set in Dublin in the 1950s and features the pathologist Quirke – he doesn’t seem to have another name. He is asked by a man he knows slightly not to perform an autopsy on his wife, who has been found dead in the sea. Quirke initially agrees, but finds suspicious circumstances, and does one anyway. So he knows she didn’t drown. But what should he do about it? He gets as far as talking to Detective Inspector Hackett, who he met in the first book, but doesn’t tell either him, or the coroner the truth, and the verdict is death by misadventure. Why does he not speak out? Both he and Hackett are still bruised from the outcome of events in the first book; we now find that the corruption they discovered – ‘the wave of mud and filth’ – has been hushed up. Quirke doesn’t feel like sticking his neck out again, but he suffers from an ‘incurable curiosity’. So will he be drawn into the mystery whether he wants be to or not?
Quirke shares the story with the dead woman, Deirdre Hunt. Black is very clever at managing transitions between past – recent past in this case – and present, not stooping to giving dates and times as some authors do. It works smoothly enough, so we read about events leading up to her death mixed in with events after it. The story is also told through Quirke’s daughter Phoebe, and to a lesser extent through Deirdre’s business partner Leslie White. This provides an opportunity to get inside these characters’ heads, to understand their motivation. This is essential, because this book, like the previous one, relies on characterisation rather than fast-moving action for its interest. Quirke does a bit of traditional detecting, such as asking questions and putting pressure on people. Black also uses the crime story tactic of misdirection to keep the plot ticking along; ‘Nothing,’ he warns, ‘is what it seems’. There’s also elements of family saga, carried over from the previous book; they make more sense if you’ve read it. But overall, the reader is primarily being asked to engage with the disordered psychology of the main characters. Black says of Quirke: ‘he is a very damaged person, as many Irish people are from their upbringing’. And is what he seems intent on showing – with somewhat mixed success, in my opinion.
For all that Banville continues to insist that he and Black are ‘two completely different writers who have two completely different processes’, the writing is that of someone with a literary sensibility. Where else would you find a crime writer describing a character’s eyes darting with ‘an odd, hindered urgency’? Or feeling ‘the touch of a cold tentacle of unease’? And these are just two random examples. In an interview, he describes Dublin as ‘a beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty’; in the book, the smoky, shabby presence of the city is almost palpable. Banville explains that ‘Quirke lives in the apartment in Dublin which I inherited from my aunt and he moves around in that area where I was when I first moved to Dublin … it’s soaked in my recollections.’ And so it’s not surprising that the language he uses to describe it is sensuous and evocative. Banville says ‘I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they are pieces of craft work and I like to think they are honestly made.’ Maybe the Black books are less verbally dense, but you could read this book just for the pleasure of the writing.
I find this story to be ultimately pessimistic, both in terms of the fate of the characters and the society in which the action occurs. The society Black describes is narrow and stifling; he has an American visitor comment critically on ‘The way you go about in cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding things that should change or be fixed or made new.’ We know from the start that Deirdre Hunt’s attempt to change her life ends in disaster; is she being punished for asserting herself in a male dominated society, or simply a victim of it? And Black ignores the common premise of most crime novels that justice must be seen to be done, and order restored. The Dublin of the 1950s may be beautiful, but in Black’s hands it’s not a very nice place.
I was interested to see that the first three of the Black stories (there’s now seven of them) have been made into a BBC TV series, Quirke, and though it doesn’t seem to have been shown yet in Australia there’s a DVD available. You can find out more about the series here. And you can read more about the work of Benjamin Black here. The most recent Benjamin Black book is a Phillip Marlowe fanfiction, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014). The most recent Banville book is Ancient Light (2012); after reading The Silver Swan, you might not be too surprised to find it’s a story of obsessive love. Two completely different writers? I don’t think so.