As an opener for a new series Snow, Banville’s first crime novel published under his own name, is promising; an intriguing and satisfyingly complex novel. A literary mystery that takes the country house murder trope but reveals a darker truth about a closed off society than readers are used to. This feels like rural post-WWII Ireland, of course Banville gets his homeland, a land caught in a time loop, almost oblivious to the changing outside world. I’m not yet sold on police officer St. John Strafford in the way I took to pathologist Dr. Quirke (protagonist of the Benjamin Black novels), but it’s early days yet.
The hold of the Church, at this time, over the population in Ireland, it’s government, laws and cultural values extended well into the secular realm. A grip that has only substantially released recently, but was tight and firmly in place when Snow is set in 1957. Traditionalists won’t like the description of this novel as a country house mystery because it doesn’t play by the rules, this is nasty murder, sensitively portrayed, but very real world, (caveat emptor delivered). The frozen landscape of winter in the novel is a metaphor for the static and stale society of the country manor admits surrounding community.
The murder takes place at the home of the Osborne’s, the local Protestant landowners, the victim is the local Catholic priest, it’s a gruesome murder, the victim is castrated. Dublin send a detective to solve the crime but also to keep a lid on it. St John Strafford is also a Protestant, the right kind of man for this delicate case? His superiors, the Osborne’s, might assume the detective is minded to be ‘respectful’ of the ramifications to this incident and the status of the family but he’s a policeman after all, where will his loyalty lie? This is Wexford, part of the new Republic of Ireland, most of the locals are Catholics, but there are still Protestant landlords this side of the border, change takes time. There’s a lot of built up resentment and hostility, class and religion are always in play. The social order encourages both silence and a buttoned up attitude to important issues. There’s a surface discourse that masks the cracks in the community, the personal issues in the family, the environment is quietly toxic. Tradition matters, when St John Strafford is invited to lunch by Colonel Osborne, he doesn’t want to invite the sergeant, is this a class issue or a religious one?
Winter, 1957. Someone has deliberately removed the bulb in the hall, the priest stumbles along in the dark, a sharp stabbing pain, he sees nothing, there’s blood, he keeps moving, makes it down the stairs and falls into one of the rooms. Next morning this allows Colonel Osborne to inform DI St John ‘Sinjun’ Strafford:
‘The body is in the library.’
It’s a macabre opening, a subversive opening. Father Tom Lawless, the victim, was a family friend, it’s not unusual for Protestant landowners to have a tame Catholic priest in their circle. In the words of Osborne, the man has been gelded, but the corpse has been redressed, (out of respect). Someone has cleaned the crime scene too, the blood has been wiped, that was the housekeeper. Sylvia Osborne, the colonel’s second wife, found the body, she is ‘unwell’ and has since taken to her bed. There are two offspring from Osborne’s first marriage, Dominic and Lettie. The case is a delicate one fraught with danger, for all. Apart from the family there are the servants and the estate staff and the local sergeant who just lost his son in a drowning incident. Strafford calls a local ambulance to take the body for PM but DCS Hackett has countermanded this, an ambulance is already on route from Dublin, they are taking control of the body, conveniently Dr Quirke is on holiday. It’s clear to Strafford that the plan is to hush things up, at least until the lie to the land is established, as long as it takes, everything on the quiet. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr McQuaid, ‘the palace’, has already agreed with Commissioner Jack Phelan, (a Knight of St Patrick), on how the case should be handled. Osborne is convinced the killer is a burglar, at least an outsider. There’s no evidence of this, Strafford knows the crime has to do with the family, the people here. The first Mrs Osborne fell down the stairs and died, the children hate the second wife, she is clearly mentally ill. Strafford forms his own picture of the family, his own relationships with the women of the house.
Snow is entertaining, a lot like the Quirke novels in its insightful dissection of Irish society and the picture it builds of place and time. The novel is not so much about unmasking the murderer as understanding the motivations and psychology of the crime, there’s a rottenness and decay to this society. No one wants to acknowledge a truth behind a terrible crime. Fans of Quirke will find much to enjoy is this novel.
Review by Paul Burke
Personal read 3.5*
Group read 4*
Faber & Faber, hardback, ISBN 9780571362677, out now.