“How strange a thing it was to be here, animate and conscious, on this ball of mud and brine as it whirled through the illimitable depths of space.”
John Banville has been writing crime novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black for some years – since Christine Falls in 2007 – and with Snow he abandons the nom de plume but sites this new novel in the same world of post-war Ireland, explicitly referencing the pathologist Quirke a couple of times. Apparently he is on honeymoon.
So this novel introduces us to a new protagonist, Detective Inspector St John Strafford, and there is a lot of repetition of both parts of his name, repeatedly correcting those who miss out the ‘r’ and
It’s pronounced Sinjun,’ he would wearily explain.
Strafford is called to a death in the country house of local landowner Colonel Osborne. A local priest, Father Tom Lawless, who had been a regular visitor at the house, was trapped by a snow storm and offered a bed for the night. During that night, he was found dead in the library, a stab wound to the neck and brutally castrated – Ouch! To the eyes of a modern reader, the motivation for the killer seems painfully clear from that opening description.
There is not much in the way of dramatic tension here – despite the gruesome mutilation of the body, and a missing police detective, this is no thriller. Despite increasing concerns about the missing colleague, the search party felt rather half hearted, and Strafford reverts to the limited comforts of the local pub, and the more generous charms of the barmaid.
What it is, however, is a gorgeously written exploration of the world of the landed gentry in the 1950s, of the power and reach of the church, of the tensions between the Catholic and Protestant communities, the landed elite and the working classes.
Banville is fully aware of the literary heritage he inhabits here: this is very much Christie territory and his characters are almost as if they stepped from a game of Cluedo. Colonel Mustard – I mean Osborne – fits the trope perfectly as does his family. The emotionally vulnerable second wife; the wayward daughter exploring her own sexuality and power; his prickly medical student son; his put upon housekeeper, Mrs Duffy. As is mentioned repeatedly,
We must seem like the characters in one of those novels about mad people in country houses.’
And even the more pedestrian characters, the forensics squad here, comment that
‘It’s a library,’ he muttered incredulously to Hendricks. ‘It’s an actual fucking library, and there’s a body in it!’
This is more than just a pastiche though. These characters had a depth and a solidity that goes beyond Christie and they felt trapped within their roles as much as anything else. It was a gentle understated social satire and commentary. This is a world on the edge of modernity, perhaps – and Peggy the accommodating barmaid may capture that more than other characters –
And Banville’s writing is lovely. Although I found his tendency to introduce every single character with a physical description a little bit unnecessary, he had some lovely fresh similes to hand. To offer up a few of them:
- Colonel Osborne “walked with a curious gait, at once rolling and rickety, like an orangutan that had something wrong with its knees”;
- Sergeant Jenkins’ head “looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg”
- Mrs Osborne’s skin “was pinkly pale, the colour of skimmed milk into which had been mixed a single drop of blood”.
This was a stylish, nuanced novel, subtly unpicking the times in which it was set.
I loved it!
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 352
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Date: 1st October 2020