Snow is an atmosphere-laden locked-room mystery that pays homage to the Golden Age detective novel while simultaneously breaking with its conventions.
John Banville offers his readers all the elements we expect from a novel in this genre. An old and creaking manor house. A body in the library. Multiple suspects. Red herrings galore.
But though he employs the tropes of the classic crime story, he doesn’t follow them slavishly. Most notably is the lack of emphasis on the “whodunit” element. In fact the why is more important in Snow than the who.
The novel begins just before Christmas when the body of a Roman Catholic priest is found in the library of Ballyglass House, a ramshackle manor in County Wexford owned by the Osborne family. Father Tom Lawless, a regular visitor to the house, has clearly been the victim of a vicious attack.
Colonel Osborne, his wife and two children plus their staff were all at home on the fateful night. There were no signs of a forced entry and heavy snowfall had made the roads too treacherous to negotiate. So the natural conclusion is that the murder was committed by one of the occupants. But who? And why?
Obstacles to Justice
Detective Inspector St John Strafford encounters multiple obstacles in his attempt to discover what happened to the priest. Someone had tampered with the crime scene before police arrive at Ballyglass House, wiping up blood from near the body, cleaning the stair carpet and adjusting the priest’s clothing.
More deliberate obstruction comes from the Catholic Church who want the whole affair hushed up. The Archbishop tells Strafford he needn’t waste his time on an investigation: a press release has already announced that the Father accidentally fell down the stairs.
There will be no mention of stab wounds to the neck nor the fact his body was mutilated. To reveal the truth would not be in the best interests of the Church and its devotees, according to the Archbishop.
… we retain, as a nation, a remarkable – some would say a deplorable – degree of innocence. In many ways we are like children, with a child’s simplicity and charm as well as, I confess, the children’s capacity for sickness It will take us a long time to achieve full maturity … growing up is a slow and painful process and one that shouldn’t be hurried . The duty falls to some of us to calculate what is best for the congregation … at large. As Mr Eliot says… “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
But Strafford is not a man who bows to pressure and continues in pursuit of the murderer. Over the next few days he uncovers secrets about the Osborne family and a darkness at the heart of life in Ireland.
Complex Figure of Detective
Strafford is a delightfully addition to the roll call of memorable detectives. He’s not the kind that is endowed with exceptional intuitive abilities nor does he come burdened with any eccentricities like Poirot’s little grey cells. The people he encounters invariably forget his name or mispronounce it and frequently feel compelled to say that he doesn’t “look much like a policeman.”
Strafford is a complex man, one so uncertain of his own abilities he sometimes dreams of chucking the whole thing in and becoming a barrister. As a Protestant in a largely Catholic police force, he’s already a bit of an outsider but his aversion to the taste of alcohol puts him even further out of synch in a country where pints and tots of whisky accompany almost every conversation..
Though he had died, over the years, he had not managed to accustom himself to the taste of either fermented grain or rotten grapes. This inadequacy, for it was nothing less, set him at odds with his fellow countrymen. Indeed it made him an object of suspicion and, in some quarters, even of outright distrust.
Snow is a novel that offers multiple pleasures beyond its central character. The atmosphere is beautifully evoked whether its the wintry conditions outside, the frosty relationships within Ballyglass House or the idiosyncratic pub where Strafford lodges (it doubles as a butcher’s shop). It’s all rendered stylishly
The library had the look of a place that no one had been in for a very long time, and today it wore a put-upon aspect, as though indignant that its solitude should be so suddenly and so rudely violated. The glass-fronted bookcases lining the walls stared before them coldly, and the books stood shoulder to shoulder in an attitude of mute resentment.
The clash with the church adds some dynamism to the novel but it’s the commentary on differences in social class and religious affiliations that I found particularly interesting in Snow.
The Osborne family are Protestant, an old Anglo-Irish family who own large swathes of land. Their grand homes are crumbling and their feudal control diminishing but still they cling to their hunting, fishing way of life.
Stafford is recognisably of the same class though his clothes are a bit dishevelled and the Colonel can’t place his family name. He’s welcome to join the Osbornes for lunch, to dine with the family and also to stay overnight. His sergeant however, a man from a much lower class, is not afforded the same hospitality.”I thought your chap might shift for himself,” is Colonel Osborne’s attitude.
Other differences are similarly captured succinctly. It’s not just class and religion that divides people, it’s their tastes in drink: we’e told for example that Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice.
It’s one of Banville’s many amusing touches in this novel. He’s often in playful mood , dropping in references to the standard features of classic crime fiction. “The body is in the library’” announces Colonel Osborne in the first line of chapter one. Shortly after one of the forensics team remarks that he wouldn’t be surprised to see “Poirot himself” any minute.
It all adds up to a highly enjoyable novel, written as skilfully and elegantly as you’d expect from a past winner of the Booker Prize. Though the narrative moves forward at pace, it’s worth slowing down because every so often there will be an evocative turn of phrase that is worth savouring.
Snow by John Banville: Footnotes
Wexford-born Banville published his first novel in 1971. His literary output includes the 2005 Booker-prize winning The Sea but he also writes crime fiction under the pen name of Benjamin Black. Until now, he’s rigorously maintained a separation between those two personas: writes his literary output in long hand with a fountain pen and his crime novels on a typewriter.
Snow is his first foray as John Banville into Benjamin Black territory. It was published by Faber in 2020.