Sunday, December 20, 2020

Snow by John Banville, a chilling historical mystery set in 1950s Ireland

Snow: cold, soft, brilliantly blinding. It muffles sound and casts a thick shroud over whatever lies beneath. The symbolism is apropos in Banville’s newest crime novel, the first to be written under his own name rather than the pseudonym (Benjamin Black) he’d established for genre-fiction purposes.

Snow takes place in County Wexford, Ireland, a time when the Catholic Church reigned supreme and buried its adversaries. One frigid day in 1957, Detective Inspector St. John (pronounced “Sinjun”) Strafford arrives at Ballyglass House to investigate a murder. The body of Father Tom Lawless, longtime friend of the Osborne family, lies on the floor of the ornate library, throat cut and private parts removed. A parish priest’s killing is bizarre enough on its own, and almost no one seems upset about it. Strafford shares the privileged Protestant background of the Osbornes but finds, to his annoyance, that this doesn’t gain him any ground in his sleuthing.

The story appears to follow a standard country-house mystery plot, with a closed-in setting and characters fitting familiar types: a refined patriarch, his attractive younger wife, their rebellious adult children. Banville peels away at these tropes as the personalities behind the theatrical parts make themselves known. Strafford is himself an intriguing figure, both in his career – most policemen in the Garda are Catholic – and in his reactions to the women he meets.

That said, he’s surprisingly slow on the uptake in pinpointing motive. An interlude late in the story, seen from Father Tom’s viewpoint, makes things clear for anyone who hasn’t yet figured it out. Banville has a consummate hand with establishing atmosphere, though, in sentences of chillingly ethereal beauty: “Surely such a violent act should leave something behind, a trace, a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling?”

Snow was published by Hanover Square Press in October; in the UK, Faber and Faber is the publisher. I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. This novel seemed apropos for this time of year in the US Midwest. This is my first time reading one of John Banville's (that is, Benjamin Black's) crime novels; if you've read others you'd recommend, please comment.

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