Last month, I read and enjoyed Christine Falls, the first of the Quirke novels by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). I was glad to find a work of detective fiction that didn’t withhold the most important clues and that gave me an interesting, but deeply flawed set of central characters. Now, having listened to the audiobook of the second Quirke novel, The Silver Swan, I’m happy to say that the pleasure continues.
The Silver Swan takes place in 1950s Dublin, about two years after the conclusion of Christine Falls. Quirke, six months sober, is coping with the changes in his relationship with the Griffith family, particularly Phoebe, when he is asked by a school acquaintance, Billy Hunt, not to do an autopsy on his dead wife, Deirdre. The request piques Quirke’s curiosity, as do his findings during the post-mortem, so he starts asking questions about Deirdre. As it turns out, the dead woman, who was co-owner of a beauty salon called The Silver Swan, knew some sketchy characters. These included her business partner and lover, Leslie White, and a so-called spiritual healer named Dr. Kreutz. There are drugs, pornography, and incriminating letters. Plenty of intrigue, and plenty of people with something to hide.
As in Christine Falls, Black weaves together multiple narrative strands, allowing the reader to learn things that Quirke does not. This time, we have flashbacks to Deirdre’s final months, as well as Phoebe’s strange fascination with Leslie White, and a police investigation into the case. Every now and then, I was taken by surprise when the narrative shifted from one time line or point of view to another, although I think that’s a weakness of the audio format. Overall, the use of shifting perspectives works. It does, however, make for an entirely different kind of detective novel, and at times Quirke’s investigation seems almost beside the point. At the end of the book, I actually had to wonder whether he found out much of anything at all.
The story here is much darker than in Christine Falls. It touches on people’s deepest, darkest desires, and how others can manipulate those desires to their benefit. It asks why we do things that we find repulsive. Where do we draw the line? And how do others lead us to step beyond the boundaries? And can things ever go back to the way they were?
Black’s descriptions of people’s feelings, of their mannerisms, of the setting, of everything are lush and evocative, and reader Timothy Dalton handles the prose very well. At times, I found the descriptions a bit too lavish, a problem I didn’t notice in Christine Falls. I suspect some of this had to do with the fact that I listened to this book and read Christine Falls in print. With audio, you can’t zip through the tedious bits, which I’m all too guilty of doing in print. The descriptions really are a minor problem, and not one that would keep me from reading more Quirke books. I still want to see where Black is going to take these characters.