Snow by John Banville

Faber and Faber
Christmas calls for murder, but only on the pages of a good book

THERE’S something about Christmas that cries out for a bit of murder. Is it because its origin lies in birth and purity and goodness, and the de-caff nihilists among us ache to give the season of goodwill and all-round good vibes toward human kind a bit of an edge?

Regardless of reason, it seems to me that cosiness mixed with terror is kind of a Christmas thing, culturally speaking. For a while there, a year didn’t go by without a feature length Agatha Christie adaptation hitting our screens during the winter holidays, for the whole family to sit down and enjoy.

As it happens, I ended last year reading The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and Other Entrees, a collection by Agatha Christie, the only collection published featuring short stories concerning both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Short stories are great for bite-sized portions to savour between Christmas preparations. This year I turned to PD James and her Mistletoe Murder, the prime story in a collection of four previously unseen stories, published in 2016.

My fiancé led me to The Honjin Murder, which you should know in case you find me dead on the night of our marriage, as the central mystery is the baffling double-murder of a couple on the night of their wedding.

It’s supposedly the first Japanese murder mystery, and borrows heavily from the Western genre. It’s deliberate; the quirky private detective brought on to solve the case references the large library of crime novels at the scene of the crowd, and questions whether inspiration for this ‘closed room’ murder could have come from one of them.

All this brings me to John Banville’s Snow. In all honesty I had avoided the title, as irked as I was by the author’s assertions about the Booker prize. He grumpily asserted that it would be “difficult” for him, as a white, privileged male to win the Booker nowadays, as a result of the “woke” movement, which he sneers at with derision, seemingly favouring minority writers.

Separating the artist from their work is a conversation, or a frank and impassioned discussion, actually, a whole university seminar’s worth of debating for another time, so for now I’ll just say that, despite my disagreement with much of Banville’s recent comments I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of his latest novel Snow.

And how glad I am that I did take the initiative to start Snow. Immediately, I was immersed in it thanks to the entry to the story, which is the point of view of a priest meeting his grizzly end. The pure bewilderment about what is happening is described through masterful imagining, and it sets the scene at once, giving a brief insight into who the victim is.

St John Strafford is the detective inspector assigned to the case, trekking from Dublin to Wexford in the midst of a snowstorm. The big guns have been called in because the crime has taken place in the house of a Captain Osbourne and has been committed to a member of the clergy.

Strafford is himself a member of the Irish Protestant gentry, which Osborne approves of. He is eyed with suspicion by the rest of the force, considering his background, but is noted as a methodical investigator who gets the job done.

I loved the reference to Agatha Christie early on in the novel from a crime scene investigator, marvelling with amusement at the circumstances of the crime – the library of an Anglo-Irish manor house in Wexford.

It could basically be Cluedo if the victim didn’t happen to be a priest in Catholic Ireland, 1957, with not only his life having been taken, but also the part of his anatomy that may give rise to a motive. This story may start as a traditional ‘country house murder’, but goes far beyond it.

The atmosphere is evoked with a virtuoso’s touch, descriptions of the environment in that moment in time visceral. The characters leap off the page, from the members of the Gardai, to the captain’s family and servants, and the nearby townspeople.

The joy in Snow is not so much in the plot, but in the reading. It’s engrossing, it’s beautiful, knowing and evocative. A treat to read, it’s one that deserves savouring rather than racing through.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 31 12 20

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