The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

Back on the dark streets of crime
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The Independent Culture

"God, Mr Quirke," says the chief of police to Benjamin Black's gloomy pathologist investigator towards the beginning of this, his second outing, "but you're a terrible man for the dead young ones." If the publishers of John Banville's cursorily pseudonymous excursions into crime fiction are ever looking for jacket copy, they could do worse than that.

Not only did Quirke's investigation into a young woman's death in Christine Falls, the first novel in the sequence, result in the exposure of a transatlantic baby-smuggling ring, it also brought about the disgrace of his stepbrother, the paralysis of his stepfather, the death of his lover and the rape of his daughter. In addition to the cheerless fallout from those events, Quirke has laid off the sauce for the second chapter, and the old twist of the PI who picked the wrong week to give up vice gets an almost Dantean twist from the story's setting in Fifties Dublin, where the teetotaller finds himself in a minority of one.

Quirke's woes begin afresh with a call from an old school friend. Deirdre Hunt, the attractive proprietress of the beauty parlour The Silver Swan, has been discovered drowned, her clothes neatly folded by the water's edge; apparently fearing the opprobrium that would come with a verdict of suicide, her distraught husband begs Quirke to refrain from doing a postmortem. But even a cursory examination of the girl's body reveals a puncture mark on her arm, and before long Quirke – a man who finds the dead far easier to deal with than the living – finds himself back pounding the streets in search of answers.

Banville's Benjamin Black books were apparently conceived after the model of Simenon's, the bleak, brutal, psychologically complex novels in which the Belgian author of Maigret took a holiday from his most famous character's relentless correctitude and fidelity – and they offer a similarly brooding and refracted take on human affairs.

Quirke is impelled by "the old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hidden – to know", but he's as incompetent to escape the consequences of his own actions as the people he pursues. "The past was tied to him like a tin can to a cat's tail, and even the smallest effort he made to advance produced a shaming din behind him."

The Silver Swan is a defter and more complex book than its predecessor, which occasionally found plot development smothered under the weight of Banville / Black's always ravishing prose. The new novel boasts a neat whodunnit plot and a delightful command of suspense, but there's also a kind of of mordant, near-surreal playfulness about the characters' appearance and actions this time, and the constricted dance that they undertake.

Banville's novels under his own name have mainly taken the form of monologues or confessions by the grieving or the guilty; Black's characters are blocked from confessing, and the tension it brings to the form is palpable. This is a creeping, obsessive world in which even an afternoon walk is pregnant with horror, in which even sunshine is a weapon: "A single shimmering blade of sunlight slanting down from the unpainted strip at the top of the window was embedded at an angle in the centre of the floor."

It's not a pleasant place, but it certainly repays the visit.

Picador £16.99