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Sunday
Oct242010

The Silver Swan

The Silver Swan, who living had no Note,
When Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
"Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
"More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise."
                                                                                                                  – Orlando Gibbons

Since the beginnings of the last century art has been moving away from plots of diabolical origin and into the keen, misty balefulness of the genre called noir.  Why must a world be dark to be evil?  Perhaps it is not so much that the world itself is dark, but the intentions of man impervious to the Light that may very well be his salvation.  In noir, there is little of that oddity we have come to call hope.  Each person may be an enemy, and becomes especially suspicious when he wishes to be your friend; each street is somehow guarded by wicked sentinels with little remorse for their purposes; and sex, that all-encompassing pastime, can only really lead to your perdition.  And within this now-rampant genre two types can be identified: that of the labyrinthine plot that may mimic the devilry some believe engirds the world, and that which is simple yet profound in its intentions.  The latter may describe the majority of us, and may direct our reading of this novel.

Our protagonist is a Dublin coroner by the name of Garret Quirke, a long-time widower and a brand-new teetotaler.  The reasons for such asceticism – he is asked more than once what he does now in the evening – are less puzzling than the plain unlikelihood of a heavy-set man using his large, shaking fingers to examine corpse after corpse.  When such contrivances occur in real life they are accepted as nature's eccentricity, yet in fiction they are dismissed as improbable.  Given little power over his own existence, Quirke is relegated to an almost bureaucratic undertaker role requiring silence, mansuetude, and a willingness to grease a few wheels.  Why such an environment?  One supposes that the average coroner would be less compelled to meet the desires of the next-of-kin, especially when some of these desires are underhanded and disturbing.  Quirke has, of course, no such qualms.  This makes him both an excellent noir hero – no noir hero can really manage straitlaced morals – and an easy victim of those who prey on the ethically conflicted.  And it is initially unclear as to which category Billy Hunt fits. 

A traveling salesman, Billy was in another unlikely coincidence once Quirke's classmate in medical school.  His failure to finish his studies has its reason, as we learn much later in the novel, but he does bear more than a passing resemblance to Quirke: he is strapping and large, likes his gargle, and his wife, Deidre, was recently found naked and drowned in a cove (a fact made doubly strange by Billy's confession that the late Mrs. Hunt neither disrobed entirely for her husband nor knew how to swim).  An unstated implication arises, echoed by Quirke's discovery of needle marks on Deidre's inner forearm, and allows our coroner to be sympathetic to his classmate's request to declare the affair a suicide.  This he does, unconvincingly, before the local judge prior to launching into his own investigation of the matter with the help of the police and, well, his own preoccupation with dead wives.  A third widower appears, Quirke's brother-in-law, and a loathsome family secret is revealed: upon the death of his wife Delia at childbirth, Quirke entrusted their child to his wife's sister, Sarah and her husband Mal.  Yes, one guesses an alcoholic coroner would not be the ideal single parent.  But the hand-off is made more appalling by the knowledge that Quirke had always preferred Sarah to Delia, yet only Delia would allow herself to be deflowered before they exchanged vows.  That sidelight may be endemic to noir fiction: that even while a person wants to do good, the result as well as the impetus may both be foul.

There are others: Leslie White, a tall, pale Lothario and his voluptuous if ignored wife Kate; Phoebe, Quirke's daughter by birth alone; Hackett, the detective inspector at whom Quirke hurls some probatory missiles; Rose, the widow of an old, rich Irishman; and a "spiv" of a spiritual healer by the name of Kreutz, half-Austrian, half-Indian, but Sufi in his practices.  It is this latter being, who seems to Deidre to hail from another dimension, that maligns no one and yet possesses, "something ... that would make a person wary of being completely frank in talking about him."  The bromides are thankfully few, but with such a host of characters the portraits contain usually no more than a few wide strokes.  Take, for example, what is inflicted upon poor Hackett: 

He was in shirtsleeves and broad braces.  Quirke recognized the voluminous blue trousers, shined to a high polish at seat and knee, that were one half of what must still be the only suit he owned.  His big square face, with its slash of mouth and watchful eyes, was shiny too, especially about the jowls and chin.  His brilliantined black hair was brushed back fiercely from his forehead in a raptor's crest.  Quirke was not sure that he had ever seen Hackett before without his hat.  It was two years since he and Hackett had last spoken, and he was faintly surprised to discover how pleased he was to see the wily old brute, box-head and carp's mouth and shiny serge and all.

A clear image surfaces in our minds, if enhanced by hundreds of close matches.  And while Quirke is rather an original concoction – a recovering drunk, stubborn, and both highly sensitive and almost emotionless – most of the personae suggest old cut-outs of the kind so commonly incident to noir and its shallow, filthy canals.  Deidre, who goes by the nom de scène Laura Swan, emerges from a hardscrabble existence to marry the very unnecessary Billy and then begin a very unnecessary affair with the unmarriable Leslie – and not only the names bespeak little children.  That they come to run jointly a beauty salon and massage parlor should explain Quirke's discomposure at Billy's pleas to file this all away under that most lamentable of Catholic sins – and we should stay our pens right about there.

Benjamin Black is the poorly concealed pseudonym of this fine Irish writer, who has been both praised and lambasted for his venture into what might be broadly termed popular fiction.  Since Banville's bugbear (as with most writers of his talent) has always been overcoming the superficiality of structure, a neat knot of threads may be just what he could use to weave his ivies.  And weave he does: Deidre's hair was "a shining reddish gold, like a million strands of soft, supple metal, catching the light from all angles and glowing even in the half-dark"; at Kreutz's place she finds "three unreally perfect, glossy apples in the copper dish, each one reflecting on its cheek an identical gleaming spot of light from the window"; and a waiter "present[s] the wine bottle for Rose's inspection, like a conjurer showing a dove preparatory to making it disappear."  There are many other such moments, transparent moments that show the old, sturdy, unflappable Banville toggling between the lush madness of aesthetic prose and the austerity of these quiet detective tales.  There is something satisfying in their composition, which is why one is not surprised to hear Banville admit, as he did in a recent interview, that while he can only manage about five hundred words a day for his normal prose, he can pump out up to nine thousand for a noir text.  Must be the quiet, introspective setting.  Bloody and quiet, that is.

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