John Banville is a critically acclaimed author. His literary novels have won the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Under the pen name Benjamin Black, Banville has written crime fiction, stating that he sees his Black work as a craft, whereas as Banville he is an artist. With his latest novel Snow, the distinction between the two personas has become blurred.
The Benjamin Black novels largely concern Quirke, a pathologist investigating crimes in 1950s Dublin. Snow is the first crime novel written by Banville, also set in 50s Ireland, with a very brief reference to Quirke. The premise initially sounds like a story from the golden age of crime writing, as a priest is found murdered in a remote manor house in the Irish countryside during a snow storm. Very few of the suspects – the retired Colonel and his younger second-wife, his two children, and an assortment of staff – seem particularly upset by Father Tom’s sudden demise. Enter Inspector Strafford, Protestant police officer, whose presence and desire to uphold justice push back against the wish of the authorities to hush up the whole thing. However the gruesome details of the crime, and a dark undercurrent of motive, make this as far from a cosy-mystery as you could hope to find.
The character of St John Strafford is a fascinating one. He has an air of melancholy surrounding him, and he is dogged by the feeling that he might be in the wrong profession. I really hope we see more of him in further books. The writing is, as you’d expect from John Banville, beautiful and lyrical. It perfectly evokes the attitudes and societal viewpoints of post-war Ireland, and this is the novel’s greatest achievement, for whilst it undoubtedly is a crime story, Banville seems less interested in the plot than he is in depicting a realistic impression of an isolated community populated by three-dimensional characters (something that many of the golden-age crime novels are often criticised for). But that’s not to say that the mystery of Father Tom’s death is not a satisfying one to puzzle over. The writing is atmospheric and unhurried, and the novel is well-paced. Its denouement feels inevitable, yet there are surprises before the end. The clues are all there. Banville plays fair with the audience, and there are a couple of nice twists on the journey. I love literary historical crime, and this is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when the shackles of genre are forgotten for a while and powerful storytelling is allowed to flourish. Highly recommended.