Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Whenever someone crosses over into a new genre I always think about the Alan Jackson song Gone Country that tells the story of failed folk and pop singers trying to jump on the Country Music bandwagon of the 1990s. 
John Banville is a very successful writer winning the Man Booker in 2005 and I wonder why he has tried to cross over and write crime fiction. The biography of Banville in the Guardian here calls him a writer "who values language above plot, suspense, pace and drama..." and I thought he would have steered well clear of a genre where plot and suspense are paramount. 

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black [aka John Banville] was a book sent to me for review by those kind people at Picador USA. But I feel I have to give my honest opinion while trying to avoid the smart aleck approach to reviewing. 

The novel is set in 1950s Dublin two years after the events of Christine Falls [Black's first venture into crime fiction], Quirke the irascible but now sober pathologist is approached by Billy Hunt, an acquaintance from his college days, who asks him to cover up his wife Deirdre's apparent suicide. Quirke does this and then begins to probe into the circumstances of Deirdre Hunt alias Laura Swan's death. The story is told in two parts as we follow Quirke and his newly acknowledged daughter Phoebe in the present and Deirdre/Laura in a back story that explains how she set up the beauty salon The Silver Swan and tells the  sad story of her abusive relationships. 

To briefly paraphrase the plot Deirdre sleeps with Leslie, who is married to Kate, who sleeps with Quirke, who has a daughter Phoebe, who sleeps with Leslie and possibly  this is obviously what the Baltimore Sun calls "an even better infrastructure". 
The New York Times Book Review mentions "the sinuous prose, subtle eroticism" and the Baltimore Sun refers to "his luminous prose". I could go on quoting more of all this admiration but in my opinion the erotic content in this novel is about as subtle as a bash in the *******  with a hurley. 

He would bite her lips until they bled, or twist her arm behind her back and make her gasp, and once when he could not manage to do anything and she laughed it off and said it did not matter , instead of being grateful for her understanding he smacked her across the face, hard, so that her head flew back and banged off the headboard and she saw stars.

I suppose parts of this book were well written, it was Banville after all, but the plot was flimsily obvious and the mostly odious characters cliched and dull. I did not enjoy reading The Silver Swan because strangely for something Irish it was not much fun. 

The novelist daily at his desk eats ashes and if occasionally he encounters a diamond he is likely to break a tooth. Money is necessary to pay the dentist's bills.
[John Banville: The Guardian]    


Blogger WhereDunnit said...

If there's no fun in it, there's no point, for me - thanks for the review!

9:20 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Steph, I try to give my honest opinion for what it's worth. I have to admit that I have a particular distaste for books that involve gratuitous violence towards or humiliation of women.

10:52 AM  
Blogger crimeficreader said...

'The biography of Banville in the Guardian here calls him a writer "who values language above plot, suspense, pace and drama..." and I thought he would have steered well clear of a genre where plot and suspense are paramount.'

Good point.

I have to admit that I was insufficiently taken with his first crime novel to rush to seek more. Although I did buy a copy of this one in Amsterdam last November. I won't be rushing to read it now.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd say Allan Jackson has chutzpah whining about failed rock and roll singers jumping on the country bandwagon since so much of country the past two decades or more has consisted of singers crossing over into soft rock.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued by how miserable so many writers appear to be (I'm thinking also of the Guardian article earlier in the week which quoted Colm Toibin and others to the general effect that a writer's lot is not a happy one). Writing's not always easy but, in my experience, it's a lot more fun than most of the alternatives. As the great Kingsley Amis said, if you don't like doing it, go and do something else. I agree with you entirely on Mr Banville, incidentally. He can be a terrific writer, but he can't do crime.

2:01 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

crimeficreader if I did not know you were surrounded by many other books I would be worried that I have influenced you to ignore a Man Booker winning prize author. ;o) It is a miserable book and does not have a higher message.
I have moved on to an Italian author who has a sense of humour a review for Karen eventually.

Peter my knowledge of the music scene is very limited and my C&W collection consists of artists I have heard on the car radio when we have been on holiday in the USA. They all sound like soft rock to me and they are all whining about lost jobs, lost love, lost youth, towns in recession, foreclosed farms and children being abused. Unfortunately they seem an appropriate choice at the moment for Britain 2009.

2:02 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for your comments Michael. A lot of bloggers would love to be writers but lack the application and talent.
I am particularly pleased that you agree with me on Mr Banville especially as Karen at Euro Crime has my review of The Shadow Walker to be posted some time. The review is a little bit more positive than the Banville.

I kept on telling my wife how interesting and clever Shadow Walker was and the next thing I am booked in a Mongolian Yurt on Bodmin Moor for our holiday! If it is raining I will blame you. :o) I have The Outcast ready to take with me to read it should be fun, I hope.

2:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, dear. I've been held responsible for many things but never the weather on Bodmin Moor...I'll do my best to ensure sunshine. I've stayed in yurts (or gers as they're called in Mongolia) and found them remarkably cosy both in the Gobi and on the northern steppe, so I hope the experience in Bodmin won't be too bad. Thanks for the kind words on 'The Shadow Walker' - I hope 'The Outcast' helps to compensate for any failings on the meteorological front!

3:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


the verdict here seems clear, so perhaps no need to add anything,

I haven't read Silver Swan, but I read Christine Falls and in my opinion it contains some really good sentences, paragraphs, scenes, but as a whole it was not a convincing piece of crime fiction (it was nominated for several awards, so, obviously, a lot of people think differently).

Peter Murphys Blog of Revelations presented a very insightful interview with Banville (-> here) that gives an answer to the question why Banville turned to crime fiction.
[At the end there is a remark about "a guy called Richard Stark" that sounds a bit snotty, but a reader of my blog told me about a Newsweek article that shows "this guy" and Banville really hit it off].

2:52 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for your comments Bernd I will have a look at that interview.

4:07 PM  

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