There's been a bit of debate about the Benjamin Black books and whether they really count as detective novels, because they are written by Booker Prize-winning Irish author John Banville, and it's clear that he doesn't really feel the need to follow the crime thriller textbook structure to the letter.
Far from finding this annoying, though, I absolutely loved it. The book has a dark feel to it, with subcurrents of drug addiction, spiritual healing and sexual jealousy that are powerful and dramatic. Set in Dublin in the 1950s the book has such a strong flavour of a past long gone. I love the main character of Quirke, who is a tired pathologist with a drinking habit he's fighting to control and a past full of mistakes and wrong turns. And other characters reoccur from the first novel as well, in a satisfying way.
Banville is a great, great writer, and there's such a control in what he writes; every sentence is perfectly balanced and every scene I could see exactly in my head. This book has the same sense of controlled menace as there is in his best novels. I loved it, despite its profoundly melancholy atmosphere, and I would very very much recommend it.
Incurably curious pathologist Quirke is back, in John Banville's second novel written as Benjamin Black. It's two years since the events of Christine Falls, and Quirke has given up the drink. He and his daughter aren't on good terms, his step-father's suffered a severe stroke, and his step-brother's lonely and mourning the death of his wife. A bleak picture in 50's Dublin, then. Things threaten to become even more interesting when Billy Hunt, an old school-friend Quirke barely remembers, calls him and asks a favour: his wife has been found drowned, a suspected suicide, and could Quirke please see that an autopsy is not performed. Billy can't bear the thought of his wife body under the pathologist's scalpel. Quirke, being Quirke, agrees but does one anyway after he notices a suspicious mark on the dead woman's skin. It seems he is right to be suspicious, but all that he finds only begs more questions, questions Quirke begins to worry away at, slowly picking his way through a puzzle of drugs, messy finances, and adultery, to reveal the answer.
It's possible that Banville is the best writer at work in the genre at the moment, in terms of artfulness at least. His prose is simply brilliant, gorgeous and evocative and poetic. The sentences he writes stun, the descriptions of the people and the city seem lovingly penned. However, there are moments when you get the sense he's working on autopilot with these books. Every now and then, a clunker, which would never happen in a book written under the real name. I read somewhere that he writes them very quickly, and if you were to compare the writing here to the writing in, for example, The Sea, I can certainly believe that. If his writing is this good when he's not even really trying, if he were to spend the time on a crime novel that he spends on a normal piece of fiction, imagine the result!
Quirke is a stunning character, too. Troubled, determined, dogged, melancholy, tee-total here, Banville furnishes him with dimension and makes him fascinating with absolute ease. The characterisation of Quirke alone is reason enough to read the series. As would be the atmosphere of the novel: vaguely sordid, repressed, a little desperate, dark, with everything seeming sinister.
Though only area where Banville is less than brilliant is the plotting. Christine Falls was a little too predictable in this department, though with a brilliant end. The plot of The Silver Swan is actually quite simple, but Banville moves it along at a perfect pace and this time ensures that there's enough the reader doesn't know to keep them interested in that department. There are no great shocks (there are, after all, only about three scenarios which could prove to be the truth), but it's all developed excellently. There's no punch at the end as there was with the last novel, but the whole thing is more satisfying over all. I can't wait for the next from the Benjamin Black pen... (Apparently called The Lemur, and to be serialised in The New York Times...)
Compared to many contemporary crime fiction novels, which have a relatively quick pace and are packed with melodrama or dramatic action, The Silver Swan is quite sedate. Benjamin Black’s (John Banville) style is understated, atmospheric drama, told with a steady cadence of unfussy prose. It is well suited to portraying the drab city streets of Dublin and the conservative and reserved society of Ireland in the 1950s and its hidden, seedy underbelly. The book hinges on two events that at first seemed unlikely: Quirke’s decision to lie about an autopsy and his withdrawn and distant daughter taking up with the victim’s flamboyant business partner. However, the first makes some sense when placed into the context of Ireland in the 1950s, when suicide carried significant stigma, and the second works well in terms of introducing a certain edge to what is generally a quite a flat story. The plot is nicely set out and the characters well drawn, with Quirke a reticent, taciturn and troubled investigator. Overall, a tale that takes a different path to most crime fiction.
on 4 July 2014
Extremely well written. Interesting and well drawn characters. I have now read all the Quirke books but rather stupidly not in the order in which they were written. I would strongly recommend new readers to read them in sequence although they make good reading as stand alone volumes. Atmospheric, quite slow in pace but the writing in the 'slow bits' is so good that my attention and interest never flagged. For those who don't know Quirke is a Dublin pathologist with a serious drink problem, a weakness for the ladies and, above all, an insatiable curiosity which gets him into all sorts of trouble.
on 4 May 2009
John Banville (aka Benjamin Black) is an award-winning Irish writer whose elegant style and breadth of language can be wonderful. Few contemporary writers can match his "The Book of Evidence" for example. Here, however Banville has not only inexplicably changed his name but also his style, turning his skills to the racy detective novel. Unfortunately, he fails, unable to adapt to the genre where there are already many great writers, Ian Rankin being for me the best. The main character is a pathologist called Quirke, who strangely and unbelievably acts as a detective. The police on the other hand are equally unbelievable in showing an almost complete lack of interest in the death of a woman in strange circumstances. The dialogue is often flat, utterly clichéd and blunt, leaving nothing for the reader to discern. This reader was at times left laughing at the corny nature and abrupt ending of some of the exchanges. Moreover, Black goes seriously adrift in his drawing of working-class life in what we're led to believe is 1950s Dublin. Cliché is no substitute for empathy.
The second in the Quirke series of 1950s Dublin crime novels, this more than lives up to the promise of the first: “Christine Falls”. There is a strong sense of period if rather less of place. Black relies a great deal on a litany of street names and other references to establish Dublin.
The real quality lies in the characterisation, the texture of the writing and the skilfully woven plot. In many respects the books are as much about the central characters as the crimes with which they become engaged. Quirke is a fascinating conundrum of strengths and weaknesses, set off by his assistant Sinclair and the stolid but by no means stupid, Inspector Hackett. Even more fascinating and likeable is his daughter, Phoebe, who lacks the rancour that might justifiably colour her view of her father. Perhaps, of all the books to date, this is the one that focuses most closely on complex family relationships. It is none the worse for that but in tandem comes a cleverly worked out plot that holds our attention in itself.
Few crime writers can match Black’s literary style, even if it is at times over-elaborated. As John Banville, his novel “The Sea” won literary acclaim but a mixed public reaction. Here, without doubt it seems to me, Black/Banville has found his niche.
Having loved Christine Falls, I'd been waiting eagerly for the follow-up. Maybe it didn't have the same novelty value, but I found it a much less satisfying read. The main problem is that it's so relentlessly grim and most of the principal characters are unlikeable and hard to care about. Quirke's daughter Phoebe is especially hard work.
The story proceeds in a plodding way, following parallel strands: in one, Quirke investigates, in the most desultory way possible, the death of a woman in an apparent suicide; in the second, we follow the woman's last few weeks to her death.
This book seemed to have less detail about Dublin in the 50s: the heavy drinking, the endless smoking, the priest-ridden hypocrisy. I found it quite easy to put down.
This second book in the Quirke series is every bit as enjoyable, atmospheric and well-written as the first. Benjamin Black (John Banville) aims for mood, period feel and human motivation in his stories, rather than over-complicate the plots, and although at times it feels a little bit pedestrian, it builds to a strong and engaging finale. 1950s Dublin is once again beautifully drawn in the prose, and it's interesting to note on Benjamin Black's website that Banville reveals he discovered some of Georges Simenon's non-Maigret titles and was heavily influenced by these mini masterpieces in his own crime writing. The influence has certainly paid off here, as the book has that observational, slightly detached but non-judegemental feel that much of Simenon's writing generates.
The plot centres around an apparent suicide, an old aquaintance of Quirke's getting in touch to ask a favour, and unfinished family business from the series opener "Christine Falls". From here, dark and shady deeds emerge, unfolded in brilliantly done prose that is a joy to read. Shaping up to be a very engrossing and unmissable series indeed.
on 9 July 2014
The story is slightly different to that of the TV programme as (in th4e book) Sarah had already died when the story started. I reckon the poor old BBC couldn't afford the car chase and more exciting ending.
on 18 September 2014
This is the second book in this series that I have read.Good well paced thrillers,enjoying them