Irish wordsmith John Banville has won the Booker Prize and torrents of praise for the richly textured prose of his novels. He has also written a series of seven historical mysteries set in 1950s Dublin that feature a man named Quirke, the town’s coroner, who spends far more time solving crimes than conducting autopsies. To distance himself from the mysteries, Banville wrote the series under the pen name Benjamin Black. And for years he told himself and his readers that the Quirke novels were a species of hack work, written for money alone and unworthy of the more serious works that garnered the Booker and other major literary awards. Now, finally, Banville has put Benjamin Black to rest, acknowledging that the Quirke stories aren’t really all that bad after all. And he has returned to the genre with what appears to be the launch of a new detective series with a novel entitled Snow.
Snow (St. John Strafford #1) by John Banville (2020) 255 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
A novel set on Quirke’s overcast and gloomy island
Like the Quirke novels, Snow is set in 1950s Dublin (although more precisely in 1957 and in the countryside), and the two leading characters of the series even surface here as well. Both Quirke, who is off-stage, on vacation, and the coroner’s friend and collaborator, Hackett, now Detective Chief Superintendent in the Garda, join the cast of this novel. But the center of attention shifts to a new sleuth, thirty-five-year-old Detective Inspector St. John Strafford. That’s Strafford with an R, as the inspector routinely points out, and he pronounces his given name as Sinjun. At a time when memories of the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) are still vivid, Strafford is a Protestant in a rigidly Catholic nation and the heir of an upper-crust English family long-established on the island. He is far from popular in the Garda, and isn’t that a classic setup for a new detective series?
Not a garden-variety whodunit
From the outset, you may be aware that Snow is not a garden-variety whodunit. “This case was a weird one. It had the potential to land him in a great deal of trouble, if he didn’t take the greatest care and handle it just the right way.” The story superficially displays all the earmarks of the country-manor mysteries that loom so large in the English canon, but the corpse that turns up in Colonel Osborne’s pile in southeastern Ireland is a priest.
Nobody murders a priest in 1950s Ireland! And the priest has not just been stabbed to death but mutilated in a particularly ugly manner that suggests a history of sexual misdeeds. Now, if you’ve read the Quirke stories, you’ll understand how central is the role of the Catholic Church in John Banville’s imagination and how heavy a hand the priestly hierarchy lay over Ireland in that era. And the uneasy relationship between the Garda and the Church lies at the core of this tale, too.
A classic conflict between Church and state
On the surface, Snow is a simple story about a murder investigation. Inspector Strafford arrives at Ballyglass House, Colonel Osborne’s ancestral seat, and one after another meets the members of his family and staff. Every one of them is a suspect, most are eccentric, and they all seem to have something to hide. Agatha Christie would be proud. Strafford and his sidekick, Sergeant Jennings, methodically proceed to sort through the murky circumstances that led to Father Tom’s murder and attempt to pry the truth from each of the many suspicious characters. But the real story here is the conflict between Church and state. Strafford knows that the powerful Archbishop will suppress news about the priest’s death, and most certainly about its sexual connotations. Only by risking his career in the Garda can Strafford hope to get the facts out into the open once he solves the case.
About the author
Ireland may house just five million people in a world of more than seven billion, but the island has produced a disproportionate share of our most acclaimed writers. Think James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, C. S. Lewis, and many others who come to mind. But the Booker Award-winner John Banville (1945-) stands tall even in this exalted company of Irish scribblers. He is a prose stylist of uncommon talent.
Banville has won many of the world’s most prestigious literary awards for his elegant wordsmithing and insightful survey of the human condition. He is considered a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Banville has published seventeen novels to date under his own name as well as the seven Quirke stories as Benjamin Black. He was born in Wexford in southeastern Ireland, where Snow is set. If this novel is in fact the initial entry in a new detective series, it’s a very promising start.
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