Before I forget, Happy New Year. This year I’m sure we’re all happy to see the end of the year that leaves us. Let’s hope the next one is better (come on, this time is not that difficult, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed).
And now, to the review.
Snow (St. John Strafford 1) by John Banville
‘Superb.’ The Times
‘Outstanding.’ Irish Independent
‘Exquisite.’ Daily Mail
A CrimeReads Most Anticipated Book of 2020
‘The body is in the library,’ Colonel Osborne said. ‘Come this way.’
Following the discovery of the corpse of a highly respected parish priest at Ballyglass House – the Co. Wexford family seat of the aristocratic, secretive Osborne family – Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called in from Dublin to investigate.
Strafford faces obstruction from all angles, but carries on determinedly in his pursuit of the murderer. However, as the snow continues to fall over this ever-expanding mystery, the people of Ballyglass are equally determined to keep their secrets.
‘The sinister and unnerving Snow has all the trimmings of a classic country house mystery – body in the library, closed circle of suspects, foul weather – all elevated by Banville’s immaculate, penetrating prose.’ Peter Swanson
About the author:
Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland. His father worked in a garage and died when Banville was in his early thirties; his mother was a housewife. He is the youngest of three siblings; his older brother Vincent is also a novelist and has written under the name Vincent Lawrence as well as his own. His sister Vonnie Banville-Evans has written both a children’s novel and a reminiscence of growing up in Wexford.
Educated at a Christian Brothers’ school and at St Peter’s College in Wexford. Despite having intended to be a painter and an architect he did not attend university. Banville has described this as “A great mistake. I should have gone. I regret not taking that four years of getting drunk and falling in love. But I wanted to get away from my family. I wanted to be free.” After school he worked as a clerk at Aer Lingus which allowed him to travel at deeply-discounted rates. He took advantage of this to travel in Greece and Italy. He lived in the United States during 1968 and 1969. On his return to Ireland he became a sub-editor at the Irish Press, rising eventually to the position of chief sub-editor. His first book, Long Lankin, was published in 1970.
After the Irish Press collapsed in 1995, he became a sub-editor at the Irish Times. He was appointed literary editor in 1998. The Irish Times, too, suffered severe financial problems, and Banville was offered the choice of taking a redundancy package or working as a features department sub-editor. He left. Banville has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books since 1990. In 1984, he was elected to Aosdána, but resigned in 2001, so that some other artist might be allowed to receive the cnuas.
Banville also writes under the pen name Benjamin Black. His first novel under this pen name was Christine Falls, which was followed by The Silver Swan in 2007. Banville has two adult sons with his wife, the American textile artist Janet Dunham. They met during his visit to San Francisco in 1968 where she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Dunham described him during the writing process as being like “a murderer who’s just come back from a particularly bloody killing”. Banville has two daughters from his relationship with Patricia Quinn, former head of the Arts Council of Ireland.
Banville has a strong interest in vivisection and animal rights, and is often featured in Irish media speaking out against vivisection in Irish university research.
Thanks to Faber & Faber and to NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
John Banville is a well-known, well-respected, and multiple award winner author (his awards include the Booker Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, among others), and although he is perhaps better known for his literary fiction (he also writes short stories, scripts and adapts plays), he has also written several crime fiction novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black. I read one of his novels years back (probably The Sea) and although I can’t remember much about it, what stayed with me was how beautiful his writing was. So, I was intrigued when I saw that he’d published the first book in a crime series, this time using his own name. And let me assure you that his writing is as beautiful as I remembered, even if the subject does not always correspond to the beauty vested upon it.
Funnily enough, this is a strange but unsuitably suitable Christmas read, as the story takes place around the festive season, but there is no Christmas cheer or spirit behind the happenings described in the book at all. I don’t want to talk about the plot in too much detail, to avoid spoilers and because I feel that the actual plot is somewhat incidental to what makes the book so interesting, but, in short, a Catholic priest is found dead in the library of a big aristocratic manor, in County Wexford, Ireland, in the late 1950s. The circumstances of his death are quite gruesome (despite the attempts at keeping the decorum the Church and most authorities involved make), and there are plenty of added complications. The Osborne family —the owners of the house— are Protestants, as is the detective inspector sent to investigate the murder, Strafford (from an aristocratic family as well), and, as you’d expect, they all hide secrets (or most of them): money is a problem; the first wife of Colonel Osborne died from a fall (down the same stairs the priest used before his death); Osborne’s new wife was a friend of the first wife, suffers from insomnia, is heavily medicated and is a less-than-reliable witness (she was the first person to find the body); the daughter of the family has been expelled from school but hasn’t told anybody and her behaviour is daring beyond her years; the son of the family is eager to abandon Medicine and seems to have some questionable friendships; there is a stable boy with a troubled past… As you might suspect from the title, there is plenty of snow that makes the search all the more complicated; nobody has seen or heard anything; the priest was supposed to be very popular but other than his sister nobody seems to be really sorry to see him go; Osborne’s brother-in-law has been banned from the house but was in the area at the time of the murder; there is a doctor who also hangs around the house and whose prescribing sounds suspect; the people in the village seem superficially friendly but are not very helpful, and the local police… Well, you probably catch my drift.
There is much in the novel that will remind classical mystery readers of the genre (yes, even the characters in the novel remark on the fact that the body is found in the library of a grand house), and there are plenty of homages/jokes/winks to other famous mysteries and characters, down to people always mispronouncing Strafford surname, asking him why he decided to become a detective (but he is not Poirot by any stretch of the imagination)… And Strafford is fully aware of the fact that he does not fit into the mould or the expectations, both as a detective and as a man of the upper-class, as he does not drink alcohol, he doesn’t smoke, he’s chosen a less-than-glamorous or reputable profession, and he is not particularly intuitive, brilliant, or self-assured. He does suffer from imposter-syndrome and often feels as if he was playing a part in a play (and at times as if everybody else was as well). In some ways, the novel challenges the stereotypes of that kind of book, while staying pretty close to the form and some of its conventions. At times it feels as if the central character had walked into the wrong book, but as we read, we come to realise that other things are out-of-kilter as well. It is an eerie reading experience, and an unsettling one, in a good way.
When I said that the plot was rather incidental to the interest I felt for the book, that is because although there is a mystery, most people reading the novel now (and in the future) will probably suspect what is behind the crime from very early on, although that might not have been evident to somebody like Strafford at the time. Although the exact details are not straightforward and there is a later development that adds an interesting dimension to the actual ending, I think this is an occasion when the readers are likely to be ahead of the investigator and end up observing his thought processes and the whole community rather than looking for clues about the case. Other themes abound like: the strained relationships (at times) between Protestants and Catholics and the expectations and prejudices of both sides (Strafford’s conversation with the Archbishop is priceless); family relationships; changes in circumstances for old aristocratic/landed families; the power and control of the Catholic Church over the media and civil authorities; the secrets of the Church; the nature of gossip and rumour in small villages; recent Irish history, and above all, the character of Strafford, who can be in turn naïve and insightful, highly intelligent and blind, sophisticated and socially inadequate, sharp and useless at judging people, and whose self-knowledge is, at times, sorely lacking. The book deals in pretty dark subjects as well (that I won’t mention to avoid spoilers, but you might already suspect from my comments), while at the same time being witty and having some truly humorous moments (pretty dark at times).
I have talked about the main character and have mentioned some of the others. There is also Sergeant Jenkins (his description is priceless as you can see if you read on), a more standard fit into the genre, who investigates with Strafford although nobody can remember his name, and I’ve mentioned some of the other characters before, although there are also villagers, local police, and some that we only hear about but never get to meet. None of the other characters are as well-drawn or as distinctive as Strafford, and many would not stand out in a classic mystery novel, although with some twists and a dark undertone. I’ve read some reviews that complained of the female characters, and although it is true that they appear unrealistic, conventional, and two-dimensional, the rest of the male characters don’t fare much better either. I think it is partly to do with Strafford and his shortcomings (after all, we see things through his eyes), and in the few instances when we get a different perspective, things aren’t as simple as they appear to him. In some of the cases, later events and information cast doubts on what we thought we knew.
The story is told, mostly, in a linear fashion, in the third person, as we follow Strafford while he investigates. Although we get inside of his head and the action is described from his point of view most of the time, there are moments when an omniscient observer offers us a glimpse of Strafford from outside, as it were. There are also two fragments from a different point of view, clearly separated from the rest of the text: one following a female character (I’m keeping my peace here), narrated in the third person, and another one in the first person, from the victim’s perspective, set a few years before his death, and although it is pretty tough to read, it also rings psychologically true.
The style is not the straightforward easy-to-read language we’re used to in mysteries. This is Banville, and it is a joy. It does not follow any of the dictates of avoiding unnecessary words, keeping to the action, keeping it simple, pushing the action forward… And, as an English teacher, I kept thinking it would be a great book for advanced students (proficient students) looking to learn less common vocabulary and precise and unique words (that, of course, would fit a well-educated and refined man such as Strafford). If anybody tried to put the book through Grammarly, I suspect it would break at the percentage of unusual words. Although I’m not sure this is a book for the standard mystery lover, I’m convinced those who love and study language and its intricacies will enjoy it. A few tasters from the book (although remember, mine is an ARC copy and there might be some changes in the final edition):
The last thing he saw, or seemed to see, was a faint flare of light that yellowed the darkness briefly.
The first thing everyone noticed about Sergeant Jenkins was the flatness of his head. It looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg. How, people wondered, was there room for a brain of any size at all in such a shallow space?
…her skin was pinkly pale, the colour of skimmed milk into which had been mixed a single drop of blood. Her face was like that of a Madonna by one of the lesser Old Masters, with dark eyes and a long sharp nose with a little bump at the tip.
To a microbe, he mused, each tiny burst of fire would seem a vast conflagration, like a storm on the face of the sun. He thought again of the snowy fields outside, smooth and glistening, and over them the sky of stars burning in icy brightness. Other worlds, impossibly distant. How strange a thing it was to be here, animate and conscious, on this ball of mud an brine as it whirled through illimitable depths of space.
As usual, I also recommend checking a sample or the look inside feature if you have doubts about how well the style would suit your reading taste.
The ending will be unlikely to surprise readers of mystery novels or most readers, but, as I’ve said, I don’t think that’s the point of the story. And there is a coda at the very end, that although not exactly surprising, I found quite satisfying.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would, but not to readers looking for a standard murder mystery that conforms to the usual norms, or people looking for a cozy and gentle story. If you enjoy novels that challenge the conventions, enjoy beautiful use of language, don’t mind dark subjects, and are interested in recent historical fiction set in Ireland, check it out. I am curious to see where Banville goes with book 2 in the series.
Thanks to the publisher and the author for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and share if you fancy, like, comment… And please, be safe!