Snow, a Novel
by John Banville (Faber &Faber,£14.99/€17.50)
Abandoning the nom de plume of Benjamin Black – the name under which appeared a highly successful series of crime novels – John Banville has finally embraced as his own the thriller genre with this murder mystery Snow.
The creation of this mask and the sleight of hand it entailed, setting up a gap between the high art of Mr Banville and the mere entertainment of the Quirke novels will be, no doubt, a story in itself, a story for literary scholars to argue over in the future. One thing is clear though, the weight and density of the Banville novels were replaced with a lightness of touch in the Benjamin Black work. This is further developed in Snow, delightfully so.
With Detective Inspector Strafford, Mr Banville has given us a character that can only develop in a multitude of interesting ways”
Set in 1957, it is a simpler time when the Church and State loomed larger in citizens’ lives than they do now. A priest, Fr Tom Lawless, has been murdered in an Anglo-Irish ‘big house’ of the Osbornes in Co. Wexford and Detective Inspector Strafford (with an r as he continually corrects people), last seen in The Secret Guests, has been dispatched to investigate.
The county is caught in the grip of heavy snowstorms, the very whiteness of the world itself a sign that all is not well and that the patterns that Strafford seeks which may lead to the discovery of the killer cannot be so readily discerned.
As it ought to be in a thriller, the crime itself – gruesome as it is – is at times an excuse to develop characters and observe them up close and personal. Mr Banville’s eye for detail – filtered through his detective’s necessary observations – highlight the absurdities of life. The wry knowingness of a Cluedo game, or the name-checked Agatha Christie, with the body in the library amuses the reader, as it does the world-weary detective.
The locals’ idiosyncrasies – Reck the butcher and inn-keeper – full of Shakespearian quotes and biblical allusions, and Matty the toothless old man who knows everything that is happening, are presented for our amusement. It is a very theatrical world, with everything and everyone acting out a role, at once seemingly pre-determined but hopelessly, and comically, off-script.
The image of the Irish big house in decline allows for a broad commentary of mid-century Ireland. Anglo-Irish life’s fading grandeur throws up a contrast between an independent Ireland where the bumbling Colonel Mustard-types are now replaced with bumbling gardaí and a coldly sinister Archbishop John-Charles McQuaid who makes a cameo appearance in the novel. As in all of Mr Banville’s work, the grand sweep of history appears beyond the machination of all too human foibles. Every person is out of place here, some humorously so, including Detective Inspector Strafford himself.
But, beneath the pristine cover of white snow lurks a darker reality, a tale of child abuse and vengeance. There is, as well, as might be expected, a twist or two in the tale to keep the reader on their toes.
With Detective Inspector Strafford, Mr Banville has given us a character that can only develop in a multitude of interesting ways. He is intelligent and aloof, but his profession means he is thrown into the word and forced to navigate its choppy waters. We get snippets of his back-story, his loves and his disappointments, and this reader was left wanting more.
Dr Derek Hand is Head of the School of English in DCU.