If you think Irish people are just jolly joking drinkers with charming accents, you need to read Benjamin Black's The Silver Swan (Picador, 2009). The characters here, several returning from his first crime novel Christine Falls, are positively Swedish in their bleak outlook on life. The protagonist Quirke, and his glum satellites Phoebe and Mal (not to mention the deceased-but-present Sarah and Delia) seem to be just passing time on this earth, waiting for the release that death might bring. I'm not making this up, one wonders if any of them ever laugh (any way but mirthlessly). They live in a world of physical and economic comfort, but not one of them cannot get over the "sins" of his or her past. These transgressions consist mostly of loving the wrong person, or maybe just not loving enough. The Silver Swan is most decidedly not a romance, but relationships are at he heart of the slowly-unfolding tragedies.
In this second installment of Black's series about his Dublin-based pathologist, Quirke is asked by an old school acquaintance to overlook certain aspects of his wife's recent death, when doing her post-mortem. But our tormented soul just can't stop when the evidence doesn't support the request, and gets tied up in a tense knot of relationships that soon come to include his daughter, Phoebe, the dead gal, and her increasingly creepy lover. I think there is a bit of madonna/whore going on here. The female characters are deeply flawed, or dead, or both, and one picks up an almost wistful sense of why-can't-women-just-be-at-ease?
It's hot in Dublin this summer, but that doesn't make the story steamy, it just adds a vaguely menacing sense of lethargy and fate. Most of the characters seem compelled by some force other than their own free will to act the way they do. Deirdre Hunt knows she shouldn't go see the mysterious Dr. Kreutz, but she does. Phoebe knows perfectly well that she shouldn't get involved with the smooth but slightly seedy Leslie White, but she does. Rose decides to stay in Dublin, but I can't figure out why, no one seems to want here there! Even Quirke's major lifestyle change - he is off the gargle, as the colorfuly corrupt Maisie Haddon puts it in my favorite phrase of the whole book - seems somehow imposed upon him despite his ferocious efforts to stay that course. Tomato juice anyone?
You know from the start that this will not end well, probably for anybody. In my last set of notes about a Black novel, I commented on the author's use of light for atmospherics. In The Silver Swan, it is all about smells as the sensation that backstops a moment with dread. You are barely in to the story before he gets to it, describing Billy Hunt as having "that smell, hot and raw and salty, that Quirke recognized at once, the smell of the recently bereaved." (6) Billy's late wife grew up in conditions rather less elegant than Quirke's crowd currently enjoys. "Worst of all, thought, worse even than the cold in the low rooms and the plumbing that was always breaking down and the dirt everywhere, was the smell that hung on the stairs an din the corridors, summer and winter, the brownish, tired, hopeless stink of peed-on mattresses and stewed tea and blocked-up lavatories - the smell, the very smell, of what it was to be poor, which she never got used to, never." (13) A river is noted by its "usual greenish stench," (66), a summer evening is noted for its "clear, iodine-scented air." (171) They're never lovely, these smells, but they are essential to their place or person. "At times the policeman gave off a whiff of something - it was as tangible as a smell, chalky and gray - that hinted of institutions. Was there perhaps a Carricklea in his far past, too? Were they both borstal boys? Quirke did not care to ask." (67)
This all sounds a bit grim, and it is - with about the bleakest ending I've read in crime fiction to date. Nonetheless, it is gripping, largely because of Black's leisurely unfolding of the plot and spectacular control of language.