OK, now I am officially envious of John Banville. Or Benjamin Black, as he calls himself when writing mysteries. This must happen to everybody sometime: you think you’re competent at your trade, and you come across someone who is just that much better and you think, “Wow. I’m good, but I can’t do that.” So in addition to Banville being really smart and a high-powered literary novelist and turning out these very intelligent murder mysteries on the side, he’s just such a lively writer. Here’s a plane landing in Dublin, with “its four big propellers churning in the rain and dragging undulant tunnels of wet air behind them.” “Undulant tunnels,” for heaven’s sake! In another scene he gives a character a posy of slightly wilted violets that she fidgets with, for no particular reason except that they make a wonderful image.
Not that we’d care much about such touches if the framework of The Silver Swan weren’t also sound. It’s another tale about the Irish pathologist Quirke, who can feel himself getting into trouble again and is forced to admit that his motivation for prying into a suspicious death may be nothing more than curiosity. As in Christine Falls, the victim of this murder is a young woman. The setting is 1950s Ireland and Banville/Black leans pretty hard on the many, many ways a woman could run into trouble in those days — most having to do with sex. Quirke’s own daughter Phoebe gets mixed up in this tale as well, allowing the author to explore the mistrust and longing that vibrate between the two of them. The mystery itself is less complex than the one in Christine Falls, and less depressing, which came as something of a relief. Quirke has also quite drinking, which I found quite refreshing. He thus leaves the company of alcoholic detectives so thoroughly explored by writers like Henning Mankell and Ian Rankin.
And then there are the casual perceptions that linger. It occurs to me that perhaps one of the reasons people read murder mysteries is that they provide us with a way to tiptoe up to the subject of death and contemplate it without making the obvious terrible link that it will some day apply to us. Banville/Black put this thought in my head, and this is how he did it:
“It [death] happened all the time, of course, it was as commonplace as people being born, but death was surely a far deeper mystery than birth. To be not here and then to be here was one thing, but to have been here, and made a life in all its variousness and complexity, and then suddenly to be gone, that was what was truly uncanny.”