Snow by John Banville

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The title of this novel – Snow – evokes whiteness and purity.  Evocations which are reinforced by continued references to snow and its appearance; such as ‘expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides’ [3], ‘the snow was deep’ [66], and ‘a glittering shell of hoar frost [123].   But beyond – or perhaps beneath – this whiteness and purity lies a gruesome murder.

Deep in the County of Wexford in Ireland at the country house of the Osbornes lies the body of a priest known by all as Father Tom but formally as Father Lawless – murder by stabbing followed by mutilation; and found dead in the library allowing for an ironic opening sentence ‘The body is in the library,’ Colonel Osborne said.  ‘Come this way’ [3].

Enter Detective Inspector St John [pronounced sinjun] Strafford [with two ‘r’s] who is charged with the task of solving the murder on one hand and being mindful of the wrath of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of the Catholic Church on the other.  The Archbishop has a particular interest in this crime; first, because the victim was a priest and, second, and more importantly, this priest has a sinister history.

The story opens in ‘Winter 1957’ [there are three sections to the book:  Winter 1957, Interlude Summer 1947 and Coda Summer 1967].  Consistent with the best of classic British crime stories, the range of suspects is narrow and limited to those residing in the house.  Only six people live in the house in which the priest was killed – Colonel Osborne, his dotty second wife Sylvia, his wayward daughter Leticia, his son Dominic, Mrs Duffy the housekeeper and Fonsey who looks after the horses and does odd jobs.

From the setting, the reader may expect a typical country murder mystery easily solved by a clever detective.  But – and this is a significant ‘but’ – the author John Banville is a fine writer and his murder mystery stretches far beyond the expected.  Not only is the detective a man uncertain that he is in the right job and, according to his boss, only a ‘trudger’, but there is also a sinister and ultimately disturbing element to the story.

There is a sense of darkness running just below the surface – hinted at in phrases such as ‘where the darkness was deepest’ [3] – and juxtaposed with the continual falling of the snow.  The falling of the snow is brilliantly brought to life almost as another character in the narrative as in the following sentence:

The snow was falling heavily, coming down in big flabby flakes the size of Communion wafers and lodging in icy clumps around the edges of the windscreen and making the wipers groan against the glass. [177]

Gradually, as the narrative unfolds, the backstories of the Osbornes are revealed – and the reader may be surprised at the connection between Fonsey the stable boy and Leticia the daughter of the house.

But the heart of the story is the murder of the priest, and DI Strafford, for all his efforts, has made little progress in finding the killer.

Then in the section ‘Interlude Summer 1947’, Father Tom tells his own story and it all – or almost all – becomes clear.

In this part, and as he has done consistently through the novel, the author takes the crime beyond the limits of the genre.  Snow now becomes a critique of the Catholic Church and the sins of some of its priests.

Father Tom tells us that, after his ordination, he travelled to Rome to see the Pope and catch up with a fellow seminarian.  After wine and cheese with his friend – an occasion which was ‘one of the high moments of [his] life’ [270] – he goes on to tell the reader: ‘then I made a mistake’ [271].   This ‘mistake’ resulted in his return to Ireland in disgrace, an interview with the Archbishop whose ‘thin lips of his were white with fury’ [272] and a posting to an orphanage in Carricklea.  Chillingly, he later refers to ‘the lost boys of Carricklea Reformatory and Industrial School’ [266] but he ‘never asked for details’ as ‘that kind of thing was never discussed’ [266].

DI St John Strafford now knows why the priest was killed but not who the killer was.  That discovery must wait until the conclusion of the book in the final section ‘Coda Summer 1967’.

John Banville – writing crime fiction under his own name for the first time – has crafted a crime mystery which can easily stand with the best of the genre.  To add to its appeal, it is written with more than a touch of the Man Booker Prize winner’s [for The Sea in 2005] literary style.  Providing gravitas is the exposure of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s when if the Church said that Father Lawless ‘stabbed himself in the neck by accident, then that’s what happened’ [42].

Some readers may know that John Banville under the pseudonym Benjamin Black has written six crime novels featuring Dr Quirke.  Snow is his first crime novel using his own name but there is a nod to Dr Quirke found deep within this book.

Snow

[2020]

by John Banville

Faber and Faber

ISBN 978 0 571 36268 4

$29.99; 336pp

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