Posts Tagged ‘John Banville’

‘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-

 

 

‘Mrs. Osmond’ by John Banville – An Appropriate Sequel to ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

 

‘Mrs. Osmond’ by John Banville   (2017)  –   369 pages

About two years ago, I read and was fascinated by the novel ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James, so it is only right that I read this sequel. ‘Portrait’ is the story of a young American woman Isabel Archer who goes to England and stays with some of her rich relatives there.  Ultimately she travels to Italy and winds up getting wed into a disastrous marriage with Gilbert Osmond. This all takes place in the 1880s.

As ‘Mrs. Osmond’ by John Banville begins, Isabel Archer Osmond is no longer a naïve innocent young woman. A few years have passed since ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.   Trapped in a terrible marriage, she knows she has made a huge mistake.  Now she has a new resolve and a strong determination to set things right again.

In both ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and ‘Mrs. Osmond’, the villains are Gilbert Osmond and his lady friend Madame Merle.  In ‘Portrait’, after hearing of Isabel’s new inherited fortune, they schemed and plotted to trap her into this marriage to Gilbert Osmond.  Henry James dislike of his character Gilbert Osmond bordered on hysterical frenzy.  How dare these poor Italian nobles scheme to marry into English or American money?  Banville takes a more analytical approach to this insolent devious vindictive man Gilbert.  Few of Gilbert’s actions are unpremeditated. Now Gilbert and Madame Merle are plotting daughter Pansy’s marriage into a rich English family.

Most of the characters from the first novel show up in ‘Mrs.  Osmond’. There is talk of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, two of Isabel’s old suitors.   Isabel discusses strategy with her independent reporter woman friend Henrietta Stackpole.  She meets Madame Merle and her step-daughter Pansy’s suitor Edward Rozier in Paris.  Finally she returns to Italy in order to confront Gilbert.  Sadly, her cousin Ralph Touchett who was such a lively presence in ‘Portrait’ has died, but his mother does make an appearance.

Writing ‘Mrs. Osmond’ is obviously a labor of admiration by John Banville.  Banville is paying homage to perhaps the greatest novel by Henry James or at least the one which is most accessible.  What is really impressive is the way Banville captures Henry James’ style of writing which uses the longer sentences of the Victorian era. Modern sentences are streamlined, direct, and to the point.  However, back in the time of Henry James, sentences were more involved and intricate than they are today.  Longer sentences allow for more nuances, more shading, and more subtlety. I have read my share of 19th century literature, and it seems to me that these longer sentences allowed for greater depth both in characterization and physical description. I am not so sure that the move to shorter sentences has been totally such a good thing. The shorter sentences of today may be the result of a briefer attention span.   Perhaps our modern short streamlined sentences cause us to stay more simplistic, more on the surface of things rather than going deeper into motivation and implication.

I would recommend ‘Mrs. Osmond’ for anyone who has read and enjoyed ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.  I’m not sure it would work as a stand-alone novel.

 

Grade :   A         

 

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