‘Snow’ by John Banville – A Murder in the Mansion

 

‘Snow’ by John Banville   (2020) – 299 pages

The author John Banville has decided to ditch the Benjamin Black pseudonym and write his detective novels under his own name. ‘Snow’ is the first with his new detective inspector St. John Strafford. Strafford is 35 years old, never been married, and lives by himself. He finds detective work in the 1950s Irish countryside rather a drag.

Strafford nodded. He didn’t care for this fellow, with his gruff jollity and his man-of-the-world patter. But then, there weren’t a great many people whom Strafford did care for.”

Strafford is not exactly a people person, and he sure doesn’t enjoy his job.

He always found it a tedious business, extracting information from those too dim or distracted to offer it unprompted. Only the guilty were garrulous.”

‘Snow’ is mostly written from Strafford’s dismal point of view. We get elaborate descriptions of pathetic meals he is served. We get frequent unnecessary weather reports. Most of Strafford’s evaluations of the townspeople and everything else are quite negative, but they are still somewhat fun to read. Strafford’s inner voice is well written.

‘Snow’ starts with a setup that is as old as Agatha Christie. Catholic priest Father Tom Lawless has been stabbed to death in the Colonel Osborne mansion in rural Ireland, and the family who live in the mansion are the prime suspects along with a couple of others who live outside it but have access to get inside. Whodunit?

Banville deliberately festoons the early parts of the novel with cliches. Thus we have the uptight stiff Colonel Osborne, his young nervous second wife, a teasing daughter, an obedient son, a fierce young rogue who lives in a trailer and tends the horses, even a dutiful proper maid.

She too, like everybody else Strafford had so far encountered at Ballyglass House, had the look of a character actor hired that morning, and fitted the part altogether too convincingly.”

‘Snow’ is in a way like Strafford himself, somewhat grim and quite glum. In Agatha Christie, the solving of the murder is almost playful and fun. In ‘Snow’ it is anything but fun. It is a chore for the depressive Strafford which he does only because it’s part of his job.

However Banville does have a dexterous style of writing. His approach is subtle enough to allow shifting viewpoints in the same sentence.

He was bright too, but not as bright as he believed himself to be, as Strafford had often cause to note, with a certain sympathy.”

But ultimately these grim proceedings lack the zest of some detective novels. ‘Snow’ offers the reader few pleasures beyond the ultimate reveal of whodunit.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

6 responses to this post.

  1. I politely disagree. I think this book is actually quite humorous. Yes, the humour is subtle but I chuckled a lot reading this and imagine that Banville had great fun writing it. This was one of my top 10 books last year. I loved it… the atmospheric setting, the homage to locked room mysteries of the past, the characters and the cliches.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Hi Kim,
      Different strokes for different folks.
      Yes, one could see this story of the cliched murder in a mansion and the glum detective who hates his job as a humorous slant on the detective novel, but then the grim unfunny ending would not fit.

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      • I didn’t explain myself very well. Yes, it’s got a grim ending and the murder is horrific, but it’s the 1950s and Ireland is an oppressive place at that time. It’s not a black comedy but Banville lightens the load with gentle humour, mainly in the way he describes people and how irritated Strafford gets when people get his name wrong. And there’s all these little digs at the Anglo Irish (of which he is one), which suggests to me that Banville enjoyed writing this. I hope he writes more in this vein.

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  2. Well, first off I never knew Benjamin Black was John Banville! I have been considering whether I should read him or not. He seems to have quite a grumpy personal generally, but that can be entertaining at times!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi kaggsy,
      I read at least one of the Benjamin Black novels and found it quite fun, but I have found the few John Banville novels I have read rather heavy going for the most part. It seems like now Banville has brought that heaviness to his detective novels. Yes, a detective who hates people and hates his job could be fun, but the ending of ‘Snow’ then would not fit.

      Liked by 1 person

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