Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Silver Swan.
Pathologist Quirke, circa 1950’s Dublin, is a lonely man attempting sobriety and the healing of his relationship to his daughter, Phoebe, who only two years earlier learned that Quirke is her biological father, not her uncle.
When the woman she calls mother dies, Phoebe is left with only her used-to-be father and Quirke, a poor substitute for the real thing. The pair make an uneasy truce, meeting once a week for dinner, Phoebe’s only concession to family ties.
It is hardly surprising that Quirke turns to his work for solace, to the corpses that make no demands, his evenings long and empty without the nightly pub crawl of alcoholic oblivion. Sharing one bottle of wine weekly with Phoebe, Quirke clings to his enforced abstinence in hopes of denying the truth: he has more than just a drinking problem.
Only two years ago, Quirke was drawn into an investigation that led directly through his family tree, an unsettling experience that has done little to curb his natural curiosity when confronted with a mystery. When former classmate Billy Hunt requests Quirke’s help in blocking an autopsy of his dead wife, Deirdre, Quirke’s interest is piqued.
Unable to accommodate Billy, the pathologist once more begins a quiet investigation into a case that has nothing to do with him, Billy’s younger wife found nude on the rocks near the coast, her clothes stacked neatly nearby. Convinced that Deidre’s death is a suicide, Quirke plunges into the details of the dead woman’s life - her marriage to Billy, relationship to an enigmatic spiritual healer, Dr. Hakeem Kruetz, and a possible unsavory affair with her business partner, Leslie White.
Focusing on White, an obvious womanizer, Quirke is shocked to see the man in Phoebe’s company, worried about her response to a sophisticated smooth-talker with a keen eye for vulnerable ladies. Ever since the family tragedy, Phoebe has withdrawn from society, isolated and unresponsive, the perfect target for such as White.
As the mystery unfolds, replete with nefarious characters and victimized women, Quirke untangles the vague connections in the case, propelled more by fear for Phoebe’s well-being than common sense.
Quirke’s every attempt at communication is fraught with discomfort, from the detective assigned to Deidre’s case to White’s bitterly disappointed wife, who has put her philandering husband out of the house. More fully fleshed than in Black’s Christine Falls, this is a man in search of redemption where there is no forgiveness, the wreckage of his past nearly crippling in its emotional impact.
Treading on the dark side of humanity in flashbacks from various characters’ perspectives to the tortured logic of Quirke’s pursuit of justice, Black (John Banville) fine-tunes this sympathetic protagonist, Quirke’s mind clouded by the misjudgments of a lifetime, seduced by the siren song of alcohol in a world that shows no mercy. A justice of sorts ensues, Quirke defenseless in a fine and brutal character study.