Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Irish literary writer John Banville usually writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, but this time around he has been brave enough to publish it under his own name. I can see why. It’s a very fine novel indeed, and while it traverses dark subject matter, it has a playful touch, including a reference to one of Benjamin Black’s better-known characters, the state pathologist Quirke, which greatly amused me.
Locked room mystery
Set in County Wexford in 1957, Snow is essentially a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House.
It’s one of those deliciously intriguing stories in which almost any one of the myriad characters interviewed by the young police detective could be the culprit. The magic of the mystery is enhanced by the evocative setting — a snowy few days around Christmas in the late 1950s — and the unusual circumstances — a Catholic priest murdered in a stately home of the landed gentry.
The murder itself is a rather vicious and violent one: Father Tom Lawless is found in the library lying in a pool of blood. He’s been stabbed in the neck and castrated. There’s a candlestick near his head, but not much else by way of clues. The crime is so sordid the circumstances are not disclosed to the public; most people think he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries.
When Detective Inspector St John — “It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain — Strafford arrives on the scene, having travelled down from Dublin because the local Gardaí are indisposed, he interviews everyone living in Ballyglass House. This includes Colonel Geoffrey Osborne, who describes Father Tom as “very popular, in these parts” and then explains how he came to be staying with the family:
He often comes over – came over, I suppose I should say now – from his place up at Scallanstown. His horse is stabled here – I’m master of the Keelmore hounds, Father Tom never missed an outing. We were supposed to ride yesterday, but there was the snow. He called in anyway and stayed for dinner, and we gave him a bed for the night. I couldn’t have let him go out again in that weather.’ His eyes went back to the corpse. ‘Though looking at him now, and what’s become of the poor chap, I bitterly regret that I didn’t send him home, snow or no snow. Who would do such a terrible thing to him I can’t think.’ He gave a slight cough, and waggled a finger embarrassedly in the direction of the dead man’s crotch. ‘I fastened up his trousers as best I could, for decency’s sake.’ So much for the integrity of the crime scene, Strafford thought, with a silent sigh. ‘When you look you’ll see that they – well, they gelded the poor chap. Barbarians.’
What follows is a painstaking investigation, where Strafford speaks to all the likely suspects, including the stable boy, the housekeeper, Osborne’s adult children and his second wife. There’s a sense of deja vu because Osborne’s first wife died when she fell down the stairs many years earlier, so Strafford wonders if an undetected killer has struck again.
There’s a second mystery thrown in for good measure, when Strafford’s second in command, Detective Sergeant Jenkins, goes missing midway through proceedings.
An obvious motive
Of course, for the modern-day reader, the motive for the murder of a priest is obvious, but Banville remains true to the period and shrouds the case in real mystery for Ireland at that time was devoutly religious and held priests in high esteem.
He throws in plenty of red herrings and potential culprits, but when the investigation reaches a stalemate he includes an “interlude” from 10 years earlier to get himself out of a problem he’s written himself into. This is the only jarring aspect of the book, which is filled with lush imagery and elegant turns of phrase.
The murder, for instance, is described as leaving “a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling”; a Labrador lying at someone’s feet is “as fat and torpid as a seal”; a pink satin eiderdown looks as “plump and smooth and shiny as a pie crust”; and a stubborn wine stain is “shaped like the faded map of a lost continent”.
The characters are all richly drawn and described in amusing detail.
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? He tried to hide the disfigurement by slathering his hair with Brylcreem and forcing it into a sort of bouffant style on top, but no one was fooled.
There’s much focus on the divisions between class and religion, too, where men are judged just as much by their accents and the clothes they wear as they are by the church they attend and the tipple they drink.
Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice. Strafford thought it absurd, another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on.
Snow is a hugely evocative, atmospheric tale, and told in such a filmic way, it would make a very fine telemovie or Netflix series. I loved it — and the Coda at the end, set in the summer of 1967, gives a new, intriguing twist that I never saw coming. This is historical crime fiction at its finest.