Easily the best writing in the book comes when the dead man’s voice is conjured in an unexplained “interlude” (an old letter? A posthumous soliloquy?) that chillingly captures the rationalisations of abuse, with the victim portrayed as loved and the abuser as the real victim. It’s a masterclass in unreliable narration that manipulates the reader just like the Church did generations of children. It’s classic Banville. The paedophile priest — assaulting boys in cassocks, burning them with altar candles — personifies the kind of aestheticised evil Banville is so drawn to. Father Lawless lives in a “secret, enchanted world, where everything is forbidden, and yet sometimes, on some rare and magical occasions, everything is allowed”.
Nobody is telling the truth and the snow that prevented the priest from returning home after dinner blankets the landscape, hiding secrets and muffling sound, much like the chilly, authoritarian hand of the all-powerful Catholic church, which – in the person of the Archbishop of Dublin – insists that the death is reported as an accident. It isn’t, of course, and the stable lad’s description of the deceased as “friendly” soon shows us where this story is going…
As “Benjamin Black”, the Booker-winning novelist John Banville has written a series of excellent crime novels featuring Quirke, a pathologist in 1950s Dublin.Snow, published under Banville’s own name, takes place in the same decade, but in the new location of Co Wexford in winter. A Catholic priest is found murdered in the home of a member of the Protestant landed gentry. Detective Inspector St John Strafford, called in to investigate, must navigate difficult waters of class and religion as he seeks to identify the killer.
This is a novel which demands and deserves to be read slowly, with close attention. It had me doing what I rarely have time or indeed inclination to do with a book that comes for review: to go back to the beginning and read it again with an even deeper pleasure and admiration.
What makes the novel so engrossing is that the crime is a starting point for a deft, penetrating study of the elaborate rituals of class and religion in post-war Ireland, a time and place when a person was judged by their choice of whiskey: Protestant Bushmills or Catholic Jameson’s. As the investigation becomes increasingly complicated, the answers seem to be as blinding as the snow, which continues to fall in flabby flakes, “the size of communion wafers”.
The reason Snow has been published under Banville’s name is that it isn’t really crime fiction; it is a beautifully written, atmospheric, literary novel that begins with a murder. No one, not even Strafford, seems seriously concerned with tracking down the murderer or bringing them to justice. Early on, Strafford realizes that the odd thing about the case is, “No one was crying”. The only person genuinely upset by Father Tom’s violent end is his sister, and even she isn’t crying, perhaps because in the context of the abuse she witnessed growing up (both political and domestic) murder seems almost commonplace: “She wept without tears, her shoulders heaving, now and then letting fall a harsh, dry sob”.
Readers unfamiliar with Booker Prize-winning Banville’s lush, layered prose will discover the richness of language and wit that elevate this into much more than a formulaic murder mystery. I was drawn in from the start by the atmosphere, descriptions, characterisations and incisive wit. Loose ends are satisfyingly tied up in the coda at the end of the book, ten years after the event happened. But can we really believe what the tricky Lettie says? That’s for the reader to decide.
John Banville has been writing historical crime novels under the name Benjamin Black since 2006. Indeed, his pathologist protagonist Quirke (off on his honeymoon) is name-checked here. Like its pseudonymous precursors, Snow is a superb pen portrait of a beautiful but “benighted country”. The intense cold is palpable — heightening the odd moments of comedy and kindness — and arresting phrases abound: “The living require more thought”; “how they cling, he thought, the dead”; “No end to life’s grotesqueries”. This is crime fiction for the connoisseur.