Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Silver Swan.
In The Silver Swan, Garret Quirke, the pathologist from Benjamin Black's previous novel, has taken on a measure of sobriety after years of heavy drinking. Determined to confront his inner demons, the broken-down Quirke's instincts are roused when he is called upon to investigate the suicide of a young girl whose body has been found washed up on the rocks of Dalkey Island near Dublin Harbor.
The woman, Deirdre Hunt, was the wife of Billy Hunt, an old school acquaintance of Quirke's. Hunt has strangely requested a meeting with Quirke to discuss the circumstances surrounding his wife's death. Certainly Quirke doesn't relish the prospect of meeting Hunt, whom he remembers as a rather gruff and stern man who has probably been thickened by years and who cannot help but retain the smell of the recently bereaved.
Hunt is quick to tell Quirke that Deirdre had in fact of late called herself Laura Swan, a professional name that she used when working in her new beauty parlor, the Silver Swan. But what really sets Quirke on edge is Hunt's odd request for Quirke not to perform an autopsy on Deirdre's body: "I don't want her sliced up like some sort of carcass, " he fervently tells the pathologist. Quirke promises Billy that he can't promise not to conduct a postmortem, but that he'll see what he can do.
According to Billy, her clothes were placed in a neat pile beside the wall, the only trace left of her along with her
abandoned motorcar neatly parked under a lilac tree on Sandycove Avenue. But there's something about Billy, his distress and sweaty isolation, that stings Quirke. There's also no question of not performing a postmortem after Quirke chances on a needle mark in Deirdre's arm.
When Quirke also finds strong traces of alcohol in Deirdre's blood and the residue of a mighty and surely fatal dose of morphine, he's positive that the girl met with foul play. Deirdre/Laura must indeed have been a beautiful woman, and she was quite a lot younger than Billy Hunt, but not for one moment does Quirke believe that Billy is the killer; he's too hapless, too inept: "Killers were surely of a different breed from the poor shambling, freckled, and sorrowing Billy Hunt."
Gradually moving between the events that led up to Deirdre's fatal demise and the aftermath of her death, Quirke tries to piece together the mystery of what actually happened to her.
A portrait develops of a young girl desperate to escape her poverty-stricken roots in the working-class area of the Flats where she could never quite get used to "the smell of being poor."
When she meets the enigmatic Indian spiritual healer Dr. Kreutz, who charms her with his soft, amusing, sing-song voice, looking like "some marvelous, exotic wading bird," Deirdre gets the message, a prophecy of the future in the unlikely form of survival and of love. Far more influential in her life, however, is the playful and seductive Leslie White, a "beautiful silver haired creature" who sets her on a willing course of self-destruction and opens up all that has been sexually forbidden to her.
Introducing her to a disreputable world of which she knows little, of sports cars and drinks in the afternoon and violent, shady business deals, Deirdre gleefully accepts his business proposal to help her finance her own beauty salon. But as the relationship continues, there are more and more things about White that suddenly rise to the surface, all murky and lurid. Deirdre, however, is unable to control herself; there's just something about the smoothtalking, sexually voracious White that she cannot resist.
Meanwhile, the innocent Phoebe, who up until two years ago thought Quirke was her father, tells
him that she vaguely knew Deirdre Hunt - but she, too, is faced with the seductive charms of Leslie White.
Plagued with the feeling of being watched and followed, she gradually falls for the confidence trickster who allures her,
although her state of mind remains on edge, her life becoming a complex tangle of half memories and weird fancies.
In a world that has fallen asunder, Black writes a solidly atmospheric murder mystery that makes the most of the stultifying social, sexual, and religious constraints of 1950's Dublin. From the dark interiors of the smoky cafés and pubs to the rain-soaked streets and secretive goings on in back alleyways, this is a place filled with seedy sexuality and illegal abortions - which of course makes the innocent Deirdre's foray into this life all the more shocking.
In the course of the investigation, Quirke fights the urge to drink but remains steadfast to the end,
while innocent Deirdre's short life slowly unravels in a downward spiral. In the end, drug use, blackmail, and a series of squalid nude photographs prove to be central to the mystery of Deirdre's death in this harrowing and darkly depressing tale.