ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Deadly Dubliners

(Photo: Kieran Doherty/Reuters)

March 5, 2008

Do yourself a favor: If you're the sort inclined to celebrate St. Patrick's Day this month, skip the badly pulled pint of Guinness, the hordes of amateur drinkers and the warmed-over Republican ballads at some local faux-Irish bar.

Instead, go to a bookstore; buy Benjamin Black's new mystery novel, "The Silver Swan." Go directly home. If you live with others, send them away. Pour yourself a quiet drink and settle into your best chair for an authentic dose of Irish angst and wit, wondrous writing and about as undiluted an evening's pleasure as reading can provide.

Black, of course, is the literary alter ego of John Banville, the Man Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist, who is on any credible shortlist of the finest living writers of English-language prose. His ravishingly written works of literary fiction are among the most sophisticated and intellectually demanding novels published in our language today. A former literary editor of the Irish Times, Banville is among the most knowing of writers, an artist who has consciously pushed his books beyond the still insular world of Irish letters and into the mainstream of Continental and North Atlantic fiction.

Last year, Banville/Black stunned many of his longtime fans with an utterly masterful mystery novel, "Christine Falls," which is up for both an Edgar Award and a Los Angeles Times book prize. Its protagonist was an alcoholic forensic pathologist, Garrett Quirke, a widower trying to connect with a daughter long denied, whose irrepressible impulse to pursue truth beyond the morgue leads him to uncover the collusion of political and clerical power at the root of a horrific scandal. The scene is 1950s Dublin, a city of decaying Georgian squares, mists, coal fires and pubs heavy with smoke and amber lamplight. The pall of an impacted Jansenist Catholicism and decades of failed nationalist economics rise like a fog off the Liffey -- a perfect noir setting, in other words, which Black was the first to recognize.

"Christine Falls" was the most artful noir mystery in years; "The Silver Swan" is better. The plot is grippingly propulsive, the evocation of Dublin is detail-perfect, every major and minor character is beautifully realized -- and there isn't a clunky sentence in the book.

We're two years on from the conclusion of "Christine Falls" and Quirke -- you've got to love an author willing to have that sort of fun without winking at his readers -- is approached by an old university classmate, whom he hardly remembers. Over coffee and tea at Bewley's on Grafton Street, the former schoolmate tells Quirke that his wife has been discovered as a suicide, drowned in Dublin Bay. He implores the pathologist to see that she isn't subjected to a forensic dissection, as the law requires. Quirke agrees, but no sooner does the body pass into his custody than he notices a needle mark on the arm and begins to slice his way to the truth, which is that the woman didn't drown. As Quirke unravels her deceptive past, the trail leads to a fashionable beauty salon that the dead woman once ran (and that gives the novel its title), to a sinister Englishman and to an intricate web of deceit and blackmail in which the doctor's own daughter, distant and bitter, appears to be enmeshed. Best of all, everything builds to a credible and strangely satisfying conclusion.

A solitary struggle

Just a few pages into "The Silver Swan," Black signals fans of his previous mystery that they'll be following a different Quirke, confronting his personal demons on different -- call them, solitary -- terms: "For no reason he could think of he found himself remembering the moment in McGonagle's pub half a year ago when, dizzily drunk amidst the din of Christmas reveling, he had caught sight of his own face, flushed and bulbous and bleary, reflected in the bottom of his empty whisky glass and had realized with unaccountable certitude that he had just taken his last drink. Since then he had been sober. He was as amazed by this as was anyone who knew him. He felt that it was not he who had made the decision, but that somehow it had been made for him. Despite all this training and his years in the dissecting room he had a secret conviction that the body has a consciousness of its own and knows itself and its needs as well as or better than the mind imagines that it does. The decree delivered to him that night by his gut and his swollen liver and the ventricles of his heart was absolute and incontestable. For nearly two years he had been falling steadily into the abyss of drink, falling almost as far as he had in the time, two decades before, after his wife had died, and now the fall was broken--"

But Banville is too shrewd by half to leave it at that, and -- a bit later -- Quirke finds himself traversing Stephen's Green, passing the sunbathers on one of those endless Dublin summer evenings when the fugitive light lingers after the close of business: "He felt acutely, as so often, the unwieldy bulk of himself, his squat neck and rolling shoulders and thick upper arms and the vast, solid cage of his chest. He was too big, too barrelsome, all disproportionate to the world. His brow was wet under the band of his hat. He needed a drink. Odd, how that need waxed and waned. Days might go by without a serious thought of alcohol; at other times he shivered through endless hours clenched on himself, every parched nerve crying out to be slaked."

That's as fine a description of not drinking and its inner echoes as you're likely to read, but Black's unself-consciously acute sketches of his characters' -- both major and minor -- inner lives are one of this remarkable book's many strengths. Here's Quirke's estranged daughter, Phoebe, who "was unaccustomed to taking an interest in other people's lives. It was not that she considered other people uninteresting, of course; she was not so detached as that. Only she was free of the prurience that seemed to be, that, indeed, must be, so she supposed what drove gossips and journalists and, yes, policemen to delve into the dark crevices where actions tried to hide away motives."

Clearly, Banville did not create Benjamin Black as an excuse to go slumming in a genre where standards can loosen and the returns are lucrative. Something more is at work. Every serious writer -- particularly one as knowing as Banville -- undertakes a book like this in the shadow of Graham Greene's famous distinction between his "entertainments" and his serious work. Banville, I think, has something else in mind.

Larger purpose

Several years ago, we passed a pleasant few hours in a bar off Dublin's Merrion Square, discussing his work and Irish writing in general. In the course of the conversation, Banville expressed a considerable enthusiasm for New York Review Books' republication of Georges Simenon's roman dur (hard stories), which many consider the ultimate noir novels. Banville was particularly interested in the toughest of the bunch, "Dirty Snow," which I recently had reviewed. We also spoke a bit concerning his working arrangements, about how he'd recently purchased a modern flat in one of Dublin's anonymous, inner-city courtyard buildings, where a female tenant across the way from his front window habitually walked through her apartment naked, apparently assuming everyone else was at work. It was an amusing story.

Today, Banville maintains a website devoted to Benjamin Black. One of its features is an imagined Banville interview with the noir writer Black, who lives in precisely that flat and describes precisely the anecdote of the naked woman. Toward the close of the imaginary interview, Black asks Banville what "he" thought of "Christine Falls."

"It is surprisingly hard to find an answer," Banville writes. "I tell him it is not the kind of book I normally read, although I, too, have read Simenon, and James M. Cain and Richard Stark, all of whom I know are his exemplars."

" 'It seems to me,' I venture cautiously, 'the kind of book in which the reader must supply a lot of the characters' motivations. That is' -- his gaze is steady, but is it blank or hostile? -- 'you supply information, speculation, surmises, but in the end they are all ciphers, especially Quirke.' "

Black, Banville continues, "nods. 'So they are, ciphers all. Just like folks.' He turns completely now, to face the window, and stands with his hands in his pockets, gazing out; no naked maiden flits by any window opposite. 'You see, that's the difference between you and me,' he says. 'You devote pages to speculating on why this or that character did this or that action, without ever, of course, coming up with an answer or the shade of an answer. That's your brand of phenomenology, if you'll permit me one of the big words you're always being berated for using. My way is by way of action. What my people do is what they are.' "

Fine entertainments though they surely are, there's a larger purpose in these books. One wonders how long it will be before Banville and Black meet as collaborators between hard covers?

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

The Silver SwanA NovelBenjamin BlackHenry Holt: 290 pp., $25

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