Snow by John Banville

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Reviewed by Harriet

I’m rather ashamed to say that the only one of ‘multi-award-winning’ John Banville’s books I’ve read before is The Black-Eyed Blonde, which he published in 2014 under his pseudonym Benjamin Black. This was an extremely convincing imitation of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels, and I enjoyed it immensely. So, though Snow was published under his own name, I was intrigued, as it was described in the Guardian as ‘a typically elegant country house mystery’. And so it is: the first chapter begins ‘”The body is in the library’, Colonel Osborne said. “Come this way”’.  But, though a murder takes place, a detective appears and eventually solves it, there’s much more to this – yes, elegant is the right word – novel than a homage to classic crime.

Snow takes place in 1957, and is set in Ballyglass House in County Wexford, a crumbling Protestant stronghold in a ninety-per-cent Catholic county. The victim is Father Tom, a Catholic priest and frequent visitor to the house – he stables his horse there and rides to hounds with the family. Called in to investigate the crime is Detective Inspector St. John (pronounced ‘Sinjun’) Strafford, whose own origins are also those of the Protestant landed gentry; indeed, his own family home is even more crumbling than Ballyglass House. An exceptionally quiet, self-contained, solitary man, a non-drinker who dislikes eating meat, he’s unsure why he joined the police and feels himself to be fundamentally unsuited to the job:

He hadn’t missed the surprised glance with which Colonel Osborne, opening the front door, had scanned him from head to toe and back again. It was only a matter of time before he would be told, by Colonel Osborne or someone else in the house, that he didn’t look much like a policeman. He was used to it. Most people meant it as a compliment, and he tried to take it in that spirit, though it always made him feel like a confidence trickster whose trick has been exposed.

Although Father Tom is dead before the novel proper starts, it begins with a prologue in which the murder is described from the victim’s point of view. And then, later in the novel, comes an interlude in which his voice is heard again, this time explaining the events in his life which led up to the murder. This second episode is extremely disturbing: the fact that it describes – with little shame and even a considerable amount of pleasure – episodes that took place when he was the priest in residence at a boys’ school in the West of Ireland just goes to confirm what most readers will have assumed from the start to have been the motive for the crime, especially when taken together with the fact that he was castrated immediately after his death. But, as this is 1957, neither the members of the household nor the detective leap to the conclusion that better informed present day readers will have reached almost at once.

As in all true country house mysteries, the list of suspects is quickly narrowed down to the inhabitants of the house, which is cut off from the outside world by an exceptionally heavy fall of snow. In keeping with the classic genre are the characters of the family members: bluff, self-important Colonel Osborne, who refuses to relinquish the idea of an outside intruder despite all the evidence that this is an impossibility; his strange, seductive, drug-addicted second wife; his precocious, rebellious daughter; and his silent, unhappy son. Then there are the various retainers, at least one of whom is secretly sexually involved with a member of the family.  Although this relatively small pool of suspects narrows the field, none of them have a viable alibi. And, if Strafford’s task were not difficult enough, the heavy hand of the Catholic Church descends immediately: instead of being examined in a local autopsy, the body is carried off to Dublin, where the findings are suppressed, and no word of the crime is allowed to reach the public. Strafford even visits the Archbishop in a futile attempt to loosen the Church’s iron grip on the investigation, which the prelate insists must be described as an unfortunate accident.

Then, of course, there’s the snow, which is, as Strafford says, ‘general all over Ireland’. He’s quoting the end of ‘The Dead’, James Joyce’s celebrated story, though this reference passes his listeners by, yet another indication of how little he fits into the milieu he has to work in. But yes, the ubiquity of the snow affects the investigation in many ways, not least because Strafford’s second-in-command disappears one night and any attempt at a search party is thwarted by the difficulty of going anywhere outside. The blanketing effect of the snow could, indeed, be said also to mimic the blindness and deafness of the Catholic Church to the atrocities which were being carried out under its auspices.

Readers familiar with Banville may wonder why he didn’t use his Benjamin Black persona for this detective novel. He explains his reasons in a very interesting recent interview in the New York Times [here]. When he started writing the Black series, he was surprised how easy they were to write – so much so that he said to himself ‘John Banville, you slut’. But then one day he re-read them and found them much better than he’d thought:

But when I found that I liked the Blacks, I said to myself, ‘Why do I need this rascal anyway?’ So I shut him in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him. I’ve never been ashamed or felt I had to defend what Black wrote. His books are works of craftsmanship written honestly and without pretension.” He added, with characteristic slyness: “Not that I think pretension necessarily a bad thing in a writer.”

Whether you’re an admirer of Banville or of Black, or new to both of them, this immersive novel is sure to please. Apparently we haven’t seen the last of Strafford, and I’ll be looking forward to his next outing.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

John Banville, Snow (Faber & Faber, 2020). 978-0571362677, 352pp., hardback.

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