Benjamin Black

Quirke -Consultant Pathologist, Dublin, Ireland, 1950s

"The Silver Swan"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 4, 2008)

"Everywhere he turned in the business of Deirdre Hunt, things that had seemed substantial evaporated into smoke and air, and what had appeared open and inviting entryways were suddenly slammed shut in his face."

Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, began an intriguing mystery series series two years ago with Christine Falls, featuring Quirke, a pathologist at the Hospital of the Holy Family in Dublin.  Quirke often finds himself called upon to do more than a pathologist is usually required to do, and in this second novel in the series, he is visited by Billy Hunt, a casual friend from college, who asks him not to do an autopsy on the body of his wife Deirdre.  Deirdre may have drowned herself, but this is Dublin in the 1950s.  The Catholic Church is dominant as a social and judicial force, and Hunt does not want his wife's apparent suicide to affect her status within the church or deny her and her family the benefits of her Catholic burial.

Quirke is vulnerable to persuasion.  He experienced the power of the church and its control of social and political policy-making two years ago when he investigated the death of a young woman, Christine Falls, after an abortion (the subject of Black/Banville's first novel).  It was then he discovered that not only was his "brother," Dr. Malachy Griffin involved, but that his "father," Judge Garret Griffin was an even more important player. 

Quirke owes much of his present life to Judge Griffin, who unofficially adopted him when he was a young orphan.   Sharing the Judge's attention with his real son, Malachy Griffin, Quirke was grateful for the care, love, and education he received from the Judge.   Nevertheless, Quirke followed what he believed to be right in the Christine Falls case, nearly destroying the lives of both the Judge and Malachy in the process.  Though the author is careful to include some explanation about the past in this novel, including the reasons for his estrangement from his daughter, it is complex and not fully explained, much more easily understood by those who have read Christine Falls—and a reason for those who enjoy this book to read the earlier one for background (and another good story).

The body of Billy Hunt's wife Deirdre has washed up, nude, on an island off the coast of Dublin.  Quirke is curious enough to do a secret autopsy, despite his promise to Billy Hunt, and he discovers an injection mark—Deirdre may have been under the influence of both alcohol and drugs when she died.  He never reports the results officially, choosing instead to talk privately with Det. Insp. Hackett of the local Garda station, and recommending that no public mention be made that Deirdre's death might have been suicide.  A verdict of accidental drowning is given, and Quirke then begins his investigation into the real cause of her death—accident, suicide, or murder. 

Through flashbacks and shifts in the point of view from Quirke to the other characters involved in Deirdre Hunt's story, her complicated life unfolds.  Deirdre, a young woman who grew up poor, has a head for business, and when Leslie White, an attractive, silver-haired roué, suggests that they become partners in a beauty salon, which they name The Silver Swan, she accepts.  At the same time, she also explores the "spiritual healing" of Dr. Hakeem Kreutz, a man of German/Indian background who teaches her about his religion—that of the Sufis.  The sinister Kreutz, however, is also involved in illegal activities, and soon Deirdre finds herself becoming more and more controlled by Leslie White and Kreutz, less able to make decisions, less grounded in reality—and less aware of the financial problems of her business.

As each character's point of view allows him/her to expand the story of Deirdre, the characters grow, and Quirke himself becomes more fully developed.  His relationship with Leslie White's estranged wife is both complex and sensitively explored by the author in some intense, but often delicately rendered, scenes.  At the same time, through flashbacks, Deirdre demonstrates her increasing sexual dependence on Leslie, leading to some graphic, even explicit, interludes.  With Irish women clearly regarded as either saints or sinners by these men of the fifties, there is no middle ground which allows for human "failings," and when Quirke's daughter Phoebe becomes involved with these characters, the drama of Deirdre Hunt and her life hit home with Quirke, and he becomes even more determined to understand Deirdre's death.

The nightmarish atmosphere becomes increasingly intense, sometimes developing into kinky sequences, as the characters explore the seductive and sometimes unexplored sexual urges within themselves.  Their separate points of view are given full play, and as the action leads to a fierce crescendo (and a somewhat ambiguous epilogue), the author also opens several new avenues for future novels. 

As much about Quirke as it is about the mystery of Deirdre Hunt, this novel, like Christine Falls, depends to a great extent on coincidence and improbabilities for its action and resolutions.  Quirke is an engaging and sympathetic protagonist, however.  Sober for six months when this novel opens, he continues to struggle every day with the "pub mentality," and longs to become closer to his daughter, though he recognizes that he has no right to this affection.  His honesty is tempered by his acknowledgment that sometimes "justice" is better served when one takes private action--or no action at all. 

Banville's talents, so obvious in his literary novels, are on full display here.  His descriptions enliven the physical depiction of Dublin and the atmosphere, and his recognition of life's ethical subtleties (and the church's creation of some of those conflicts) gives thematic punch to the novel.  A fine addition to this continuing series, The Silver Swan adds to the Benjamin Black oeuvre.

  • Amazon readers rating: 4 starsfrom 54 reviews

Chapter excerpt from The Silver Swan at the author's website

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"Christine Falls"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 3, 2007)

"There'll be a lot of dust if these particular pillars of society are brought down.  A lot of dust, and bricks, and rubble.  A body would want to be standing well out of the way."

Writing this thoughtful mystery with the same care that he devotes to his "serious" fiction, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, using the pen name of "Benjamin Black," draws on all facets of Dublin society and its Roman Catholic heritage to investigate the question of sin in all its aspects.  The result is a vibrantly alive, intensely realized story of Dublin life and values in the 1950s—a mystery which makes the reader think at the same time that s/he is being entertained.  Most of the characters, like most of Ireland, hold deeply ingrained religious beliefs, revere the clergy and the institution of the church, and recognize that the church is not only a source of inspiration but a dominant force in the country's social, as well as business and financial, life.

Unlike most of the characters, Quirke, the main character, holds no awe for the church.  A man in his early forties, "big and heavy and awkward," Quirke is a pathologist/coroner at Holy Family Hospital, a man whose wife has died in childbirth, and who "prizes his loneliness as mark of some distinction."  A realist, he has seen the dark side of life too often to hold out much hope for the future, his own or anyone else's.

His vision of humanity is not improved when he goes to his office unexpectedly one evening and finds his brother-in-law, famed obstetrician Malachy Griffin, altering documents regarding the death of a young woman, Christine Falls.  When Quirke performs his autopsy on the woman, he discovers, not surprisingly, that Christine Falls has died in childbirth, that the place where she was found is different from the place listed in the documents, and that the fate of her baby is unknown. 

Quirke's dedication to finding out the full circumstances of Christine's death forms the basis of the novel's mystery, but Banville has always been a complex novelist, as interested in character as in plot, and this novel is no exception.  Quirke is particularly committed to resolving the mysteries surrounding Christine's death and the fate of her orphaned child since he knows nothing about his own parentage.  He lived in an orphanage before being unofficially adopted by Judge Garrett Griffin, father of Dr. Malachy Griffin, who is obviously involved in the case of Christine Falls.  Malachy and Quirke grew up together and eventually married sisters, and Quirke has deep feelings for Malachy's wife Sarah, her daughter Phoebe, and for Judge Griffin, his adoptive father.  He is distressed at Malachy's attempt to involve him in a cover-up.

Developing on parallel planes, the novel becomes a study of Quirke and his personal relationships, at the same time that it is a study of Christine Falls and what she represents about Dublin society, the medical profession, and the church and its influence.  As one might guess from her symbolic name, Christine has "fallen," at least in the view of the church, but the nature of her sin does not begin to compare to the sins that Quirke uncovers during his investigation of her death and the fate of her child.  Gradually, the reader learns about the Knights of St. Patrick, a conservative Catholic organization with which Malachy and Judge Griffin are associated; the association of these Knights with certain American charities; the behind-the-scenes administration of orphanages and convents; and the nature of power in upper-echelon Dublin.  Throughout, the author raises questions about the nature of good and evil and what constitutes sin.

Murders, torture, beatings, and violence keep the action level high, and while this action is sometimes a bit melodramatic, with convenient coincidences, it is in keeping with the great, old-fashioned tradition of 1950s mystery-writing.  A change of location from Dublin to Boston adds to the flavor and broadens the scope of Quirke's investigation, connecting the mystery to the history of the Irish and their traditions in Boston.  

As always, Banville is a consummate artist, dedicating as much attention and care to his descriptions in this mystery as he does in his "literary" novels.  The introduction, sure to arouse interest in any reader, emphasizes a young woman's response when she is handed a  baby to take on a journey—"What struck [her] first about the bundle was the heat: it might have been a lump of burning coal that was wrapped in the blanket, except that it was soft, and that it moved…”  He uses parallel scenes to show contrasts and similarities (a Christmas party in Dublin vs. a Christmas party in Boston, both of which end violently), and shows his mastery of voice as he maintains a conversational tone appropriate for Quirke.  One hopes that Banville will continue the story of Quirke, a character with enormous potential for further development.  After this fine debut mystery, one can easily imagine Banville becoming, like Graham Greene, a writer of both serious literary fiction and "entertainments."

  • Amazon readers rating: 3.5 starsfrom 129 reviews

Chapter excerpt from Christine Falls at the author's website

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About the Author:

John BanvilleBenjamin Black is a pen name for John Banville. Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1945. He was educated at a Christian Brothers' school and St Peter's College in Wexford. He worked as a computer operator for Aer Lingus in Dublin, an opportunity that enabled him to travel widely. He was literary editor of the Irish Times between 1988 and 1999.

His novels have won numerous awards; most recent novel, The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

Christine Falls is the first in a series of proposed novels featuring pathologist Quirke penned by Benjamin Black.

John Banville lives in Dublin, Ireland About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014