When a mystery novel opens with the discovery of a dead body, it has my full attention. Avoid the eccentric neighbor characters and get right to the chase. Benjamin Black, John Banville to the Mann Booker Prize jury, opens The Silver Swan just the way I like it. A young man drops by the Dublin morgue to ask pathologist Garret Quirke not to perform an autopsy on his wife. She has just committed suicide by drowning, and he cannot bear the thought of her being cut up for examination. The Silver Swan is off to an excellent start.
Things have not gone well for pathologist/detective Garret Quirke in the two years since he was introduced in Christine Falls. His wife has died, his father is in a hospital, and his daughter is making every effort she can to avoid him. Quirke does not want to become involved in another investigation, not after how things turned out in Christine Falls, but when an old acquaintance makes a special effort to ask him not to perform an autopsy he cannot stay out of the case.
What follows is an entertaining detective story that makes a successful effort to grab its readers and force them to keep turning the pages. But, because it strays from its central character, it’s not as successful as Christine Falls. Quirke could have walked out of a Dashell Hammet or a Raymond Chandler novel. He has a drinking problem, a jaundiced view of the world, trouble with women, and he really doesn’t want to be involved–all things make good hard-boiled detective fiction. When he is present on the page, The Silver Swan has the goods. But over half the time, the focus shifts to other characters: his daughter, his friend, the victim and her backstory, various suspects. These are all interesting people and the book would suffer if their scenes were removed completely, but it would definately gain if they were reduced.
Mr. Black is up to more than just telling a detective story, of course. In Christine Falls he shone a light on parts of Irish history many people would prefer be kept in the dark. The Silver Swan has a much more domestic agenda. No societal ill is examined, nor is any great historical scandal brought to light. Instead, the characters traverse the conflicts men have with women, fathers have with daughters, and one jaded man has with the world around him. The actual mystery operates as a means to explore these relationships. That’s fine if you’re looking for a novel, but it’s problematic if you’re looking for a mystery.
I just bought a Benjamin Black book, The Lemur, the first one I’ve purchased since I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009. I guess that means I did not become as big a fan of Benjamin Black as I thought I was going to be after Christine Falls. Maybe The Lemur will change that.