Sunday, 20 February 2011

"The Silver Swan", Benjamin Black

John Banville's 'slumming' in crime fiction under the nom de plume of has aroused ire in a lot of quarters, perhaps due to crime fiction's perennial, and unjustified, inferiority complex. This is a shame, because inherently Black's Quirke series has a lot to offer, and very deserves to be considered in its own right, not obscured by debating the rights and wrongs of whether writing crime is an unworthy occupation.

While at the time of writing, in 2007, the drab Ireland of the 1950s perhaps seemed a quaint throwback, now it feels almost prescient, a picture of an Ireland in straitened times, just half a century previously. This is less starkly painted than in "Christine Falls", where the dismal menu available in Jammet's brought home what austerity really meant. Ireland here has had a slow increase in prosperity, but this Dublin still feels like an austere place, where the old Anglo Irish pseudo aristocracy will fail to make a vast amount for themselves, the Catholic establishment will do reasonably well at making money for someone else, and the majority teeter between comfort and destitution. In many ways one fears this could be a description of Ireland now.

Economic realities aside this Dublin in summer feels vividly real. A hallmark of a good book is often whether the reader feels as though the sense of place is accurate, and despite never having had the pleasure of 1950s Dublin, it succeeds in convincing absolutely. Cast in warm dusk amongst Georgian buildings the richness of setting is one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel.

Beyond the interest of the setting, it's striking how easy a read "The Silver Swan" is, despite a languid feel to the language, I got through the lion's share of it in the four hours between Chennai and Dubai, helped perhaps by a comfortable seat and a rather good Meursault provided by Emirates. This ease of writing wraps up what is actually quite a complex combination of murder, blackmail, and sexual betrayal in an accessible package. The non linear plot forces you to think about the book and how the events link together, and while this is not a completely straightforward process it is ultimately rewarding in making you think about what's happening.

Quirke remains the engaging character from "Christine Falls", undeniably flawed and idiosyncratic, but despite this someone who you can like and identify with. Indeed, one of the greater tributes to characterisation is that you can readily forgive him drawing quite such a profoundly incorrect conclusion about what actually happened and who actually did it. That said, the conclusion that justice, even a rough class of it, has been done, is borne out, and the figure of Inspector Hackett, looming in the background, strangely reassures that the truth can be arrived at, if not acted upon.