Snow a Decent Mystery, but Mostly Conventional


By John Banville

Blackstone Publishing, 304 pages.



John Banville is perhaps Ireland’s most-celebrated living author. He has won the James Tait Prize (1976), the Man Booker (2005), the Franz Kafka Prize (2011), and major awards in Austria, Italy, and Spain. Banville, whose name is often bandied about for Nobel consideration, counts Yeats and Henry James among his influences.


Pretty heady stuff, but you won’t find many highfalutin flourishes in his latest novel Snow. One the book’s pleasures is that the protagonist, Detective Inspector St. John Strafford, is not a particularly perceptive policeman. He misses obvious clues, doesn’t like his job very much, and perceives he’s not very good at it. He’s right about that; he’s a plugger and a plodder, but he’s not very personable. He’s awkward around women, has recently split with his longtime girlfriend, and comes from Protestant aristocratic roots. He endlessly corrects everyone that his first name is pronounced “Sinjun” and his surname is Strafford not Stafford.


Snow is set in Wexford, in 1957, within living memory of the Civil War (1919-21) and Irish independence (1922). Need I remind you that Irish Protestants and Catholics have had a long history of mutual distrust and conflict? Still, Strafford’s background – plus the animus of his Dublin superior– designate him as the person to investigate a murder at the country home of Geoffrey Osborne, a cash-poor Protestant blueblood. The victim, though, is Father Tom Lawless, a spongy prelate who seemingly lacks both religious conviction or enemies. He and the indolent Osborne share a love of horses, though the colonel is a clutchfist misanthrope.


Strafford arrives to a household more concerned with the bother of the carnage, not the shock of it. In fact, no one seems to give it much thought at all, even though Father Tom was also emasculated. The dispassionate colonel ordered the blood to be to wiped up and Father Tom’s body to be made more “presentable.” His dispassion extends to his 17-year-old daughter Lettie (“Lettuce!”) who just wants to step out for a good time despite Biblical proportion snows; his son Dominic; his unstable second wife Sylvia; her Scaramouch-like brother Freddie Harbison; Fonzie, the stable boy; and the housekeeper. Strafford observes that everybody, “had the look of a character actor hired that morning, and fitted the part(s) altogether too convincingly.” Indeed, many of the characters in Snow could have been plucked from an Agatha Christie novel. This includes innkeeper Mattie Moran, buxom barmaid Peggy Divine, Tom’s sister Rosemary, terse local police commander Radford, and the oily Archbishop John Charles McQuade. Especially the latter, whose concern for Ireland’s reputation is as thin as a supermodel’s profile.


The only people who care a fig about the murder are Strafford’s supervisor, Garda commissioner Jack Phelan, and Archbishop McQuade. They insist that an ambulance be dispatched through the heavy snow to bring Father Tom’s body to Dublin rather than being examined locally. Strafford and fellow investigator Detective Sergeant Jenkins suspect a cover-up, but by whom and why? As for the murder itself, everyone in the house has an alibi and there is no evidence of forcible entry.


Straford’s investigations will take him back in time to 1947, when Father Tom held a different assignment and the IRA was active in Wexford. In the present, Strafford wades through deep snow and the even deeper complicity of those seeking to stymy his investigation. The murder’s resolution is shocking and perhaps not what one expects, but it’s not hard to pinpoint who isn’t telling the truth.


Banville appends a ten-years-later coda, but with revelations that could have been tucked into the main narrative. It serves mainly to tell us things we already suspect, and to tie up loose ends of characters about whom we don’t much care. Snow is an interesting tale that will certainly keep you engaged, though the novel’s pivot divulgence won’t surprise anyone. Forget about author Banville’s reputation and read Snow for what it is: a highly readable, but rather conventional read-and-toss-aside murder mystery.


Rob Weir





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