The membrane between John Banville and his alter ego, Benjamin Black, has been breached. Detective Inspector St. John Strafford, last seen earlier this year going about his business in Black’s “The Secret Guests,” has now set up shop in Banville’s “Snow,” the Irish writer’s latest novel. What’s more, the lugubrious pathologist Quirke and Chief Superintendent Hackett, both of whom once prowled the pages of Black’s novels, have also made it over here. Whether Benjamin Black will ever return is a mystery — though not the one Strafford has been summoned to penetrate.
It is the winter of 1957, one of Ireland’s snowiest, and Strafford has been sent down from Dublin to County Wexford to investigate the murder of a Catholic priest in a Protestant house, the ancestral home of the Osbornes. Here, current occupant Colonel Osborne lives with his two grown children and his beautiful but drug-addled second wife. In the Colonel we find a perfect specimen of the declining Ascendancy: horsy, doggy, snobby, and all kitted out in the trappings of the country squire in “highly polished brogues, cavalry twill trousers with a sharp crease, a tweed shooting jacket, checked shirt and a spotted bow tie in a subdued shade of blue.”
That’s just perfect, as are his surrounds, one of Ireland’s preternaturally cold, damp, mildewing “big houses.” It’s the last place you would expect to find a murdered priest (though there was such a case in 1985).
The dead man was Father Tom Lawless, son of an IRA monster, but a popular man with the Osbornes. Still, Strafford picks up dark hints of distrust elsewhere — and, indeed, there is the matter of the priest’s genitals having been cut off as he was dying. That’s never good and readers will become increasingly uneasy when they learn that genial Father Tom had formerly been stationed at an industrial school for wayward boys.
Strafford knows that powerful forces dictate that, whatever the facts, scandal must be avoided. Both the Osbornes and the Church would prefer to call the death accidental and skip the details. Lest there be any misunderstanding on that score, Strafford is ordered to call on the true ruler of Ireland of that time, the Very Reverend John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, another wonderfully evoked character.
The ambience and detail of Banville’s book are superb, but the story itself is ham-fisted, most especially in a long section, simply plopped down out of nowhere, devoted to the priest’s thoughts of a decade earlier in which he describes his activities. Though clues, red herrings, and another dead body litter the pages, there is no real plot here and when the solution to the murder comes it is predictable — except for a final coda, which is frankly unbelievable. John Banville is a great writer, but perhaps he has run out of material.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Washington Post and elsewhere.
By: John Banville.
Publisher: Hanover Square Press, 304 pages, $27.99.