Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

"In his mind sometimes he got it all confused, got it all out of sequence..."
These words form part of an internal monologue by a character towards the end of The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black and in many ways it sums up this novel.
Despite having 350 pages in which to plant clues and lay trails for the reader to follow which all converge in a moment of realisation Black ends up having to explain exactly what had been happening all along.
It is a bit like the end of an episode of Scooby Doo when Velma tells us who the bad guy was, why he'd done it an how he got away with it.
Again, as in Christine Falls (CF), reviewed a few entries ago, the central character Quirke fails to come to life.
He is fleshed out a little and there is a bit more psychological depth to him but Black still needs other characters or his authorial voice to tell us that Quirke is complicated loner rather than through characterisation.
The novel is peppered with inconsistencies, cliches, reliance on coincidences and just stupid mistakes.
Quirke's daughter Phoebe, who at the end of CF had had become an heiress following the death of her millionaire grandfather, is working as an assistant in a hat shop.
Despite trying to expose his foster father and foster brother for the wrong doings he uncovered in CF, Quirke still pays them reqular visits.
One of the main protagonists is The Silver Swan is an English spiv called Leslie who is straight out a 1950's Ealing comedy who all-but twirls his moustache and exhales 'well heeeellllloooo' every time a pretty girl walks in to the room.
Quirke's daughter just happens to get caught up with one of the characters linked to a woman whose death Quirke is investiaging.
A policeman comically twirls his tie "like Stan Laurel" - surely it was Ollie who did that?
Benjamin Black's alter ego John Banville can get away without a plot because his novels are carefully paced exercises in styalised prose.
In his Booker winning novel The Sea, the plot could be scribbled on the back of a beer mat. But the external incidents are less important than the slow disection of the narrator's psyche and flashbacks to a childhood summer which we eventually realise defined him as person.
Part of the pleasure in reading The Sea is the act of reading itself, the plot is something on which Banville hangs his prose.
However, as Benjamin Black, Banville, has opted for the crime fiction genre in which plot is much more important but as his character says "sometimes he got it all confused".
Its not all bad and The Silver Swan is an entertaining enough read but somehow you get the feeling that Black/Banville has taken an 'ah sure that'll do' approach.


Fionnchú said...

Tony a chara, I can't retract my preference for "Swan" over "Falls," but I accept your findings. Now, you've made me understand the faults with Black on Quirke. (But I admit I had a soft spot for that charlatan svengali. The orientalism dropped plunk into staid Dublin made me think of "Araby"!) Although I still hesitantly remain in the minority of those who liked the sequel better, my liking may be due to the fact I do not read crime fiction hardly at all (except the Jack Taylor series from Ken Bruen, always a year behind in the U.S. in publication!).

So, your critique along with many who Banville's (to borrow Graham Greene's term) "entertainments," takes on more weight with me. As a writer, and one familiar with the demands of plot and character and structure, you show where BB went astray. My previous ignorance of Black's infelicities may be like (my?) teenager who thinks, for instance, MIA or Kanye West or whatever flavor of the half-decade made the all-time greatest record ever. Those of us who tend towards the surface glitter forget the shimmering depths!

Tony Bailie said...

I think I reacted so strongly to these novels because they had the potential to be so much better but somehow never got into their stride. As you said about 'Falls' there was great potential to turn the Knights of St Patrick into a really sinister organisation but once Black had established what they were they became more of a backgrounder noise.
I think my disappointment with 'Swan' was because Banville should be able to do so much better. He was a brutal critic during his stint with The Irish Times and so really has no excuse for not delivering the highest standards. I think I just felt let down.