Snow: A Novel
- By John Banville
- Hanover Square Press
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- January 19, 2021
The traditional manor-house mystery is turned on its head in this cheeky whodunit set in mid-20th-century Ireland.
John Banville’s new novel is constructed on a well-worn template: the country-house murder mystery. This staple of the golden age of whodunits conventionally unfolds at an aging but still glittery manor amid a smug cavalcade of privileged throwbacks to the Britain that once was. In the spotlight, center stage, is a corpse done in by person or persons unknown and invariably poked at by a relentless human juggernaut — whether a bespoke copper or a dazzling amateur — who will cleverly unmask the culprit.
In Snow, the Booker Prize-winning author seizes on this platform and lets it run away with him. He displaces the action to 1950s Ireland, bleakly fogbound and beset with an unusually heavy snowfall. As if to double down on the miasma of his setting, Banville recasts the standard array of dress-for-dinner types you’re likely conversant with from Dame Agatha and her fellow travelers. It’s a creepy lot deeply permeated, like the nation itself, with received religious and class certitudes.
Here, the corpse is that of a worldly parish priest, a horsey type and Catholic hanger-on in a landed but fading Protestant household. The curate has been stabbed and then gutted in a most cringeworthy fashion and left to bleed out in the library. But take no pride, reader, in catching the body-in-the-library trope; more than a few characters chew on this circumstance in fatuous thrusts at humor.
This strain of self-aware irony runs like a vein of gold through Snow, where the author’s loyalty to the standard manor-house form often slips off the sprocket, yielding vivid moments of stark realism, wry humor, politico-literary satire, pathos, and, occasionally, arch social comedy. Think Agatha Christie punched up by Charles Dickens. Or James Joyce.
Banville, for the first time writing a mystery sans pseudonym Benjamin Black, gives us a disruptive take on the genre that’s subversive, seductive, engaging, and brilliantly written from beginning to end. If you swagger in without shaking off the typical expectations of how things should go in a story like this, you can lose the thread and miss the tragic resonance of the lonely protagonist at the heart of the investigation.
Police inspector St. John (“Sinjun”) Strafford, a Protestant, is off-balance to begin with in the mostly Catholic Irish police force, the Garda. A 15-year veteran, Strafford is nothing like your usual unflappable, eyes-on-the-prize heroes of the genre. He’s uncertain, insecure, and alienated.
Befuddled by the challenges of solving the crime and doubting his own worth, Strafford falls back on policy and routine, and stumbles about throughout. A largely celibate bachelor, he drifts into near liaisons with suspects, not to mention engaging in a warmly inconclusive overnight with a sympathetic local lass. He harbors fantasies of throwing it all over to become a barrister, a life shift he knows is beyond him.
Yet Strafford soldiers on, spurning an overt “steer clear” warning from the local archbishop that the author handles with laugh-out-loud precision. Later, in a moment of sharp tonal contrast, after Strafford’s own sergeant goes missing, Strafford teams up with a local supervisor he assumes is a useless drunk. But there’s a tragic loss behind this man’s drinking; in revealing it, the chap nudges Strafford along on the final step to his own epiphany.
Banville occasionally flubs the purist mechanics of the country-house genre, notably with a long insert in the victim’s voice that banishes all readerly uncertainty about the killer’s motives. This variation from the well-made mystery model may cloy some readers.
Still, the writing is as skillful and elegant as you might expect from a Booker laureate. Banville moves his narrative forward with grace, although on every page or so, an apt and evocative turn of phrase emerges to break the spell, grabbing the reader by the throat.
Banville’s Strafford, at so many moments befogged, contrasts alarmingly with the paragons of logical sangfroid who so effortlessly deduce their way to fingering the killer in the more common examples of the genre.
But he wins in the end, right?
A postscript describes a chance encounter with Strafford 10 years later and reveals the ironic truth. He’s walking the beat now, in uniform. A painful case still — thanks to the archbishop, we presume.
Bob Duffy is a Maryland author and reviewer.