Featuring a young Irish detective – earnest, somewhat troubled – by the name of St. John (pronounced Sinjun) Strafford, Snow is a 1950s-set murder mystery – a surprisingly accessible story by one of Ireland’s most literary of authors, John Banville.
Initially playing on the game of Cluedo or an Agatha Christie whodunnit, the victim (a Roman Catholic priest) is found dead in the library of a large, rambling manor house in County Wexford, south of Dublin. A candlestick lies close to a pool of blood. Blanketed by deep, pre-Christmas snow, the aristocratic (protestant) Strafford is dispatched to keep a lid on events: the murder of a priest in 1950s Ireland in the home of the landed gentry (albeit impoverished) is not one for public consumption. As the Church moves to publicly suppress the story, so Strafford finds himself the likely lamb to the slaughter, expected to act quickly and keep quiet in what is a ‘closed house’ of suspects.
But like all good murder mysteries, there’s plenty of secrets to be uncovered – even if, by contemporary reading, with a priest and ex-remand home stable boy in the mix, a motive is plainly obvious. Banville, however, remains true to its timeframe when the country was unquestioning of the Church and priests were revered or feared. It’s through careful detective work that Strafford uncovers motives: a second murder both complicates but ultimately explains the course of events on the fateful night.
Rich in characterisation, Snow is a narrative to be savoured, a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling. It’s Banville’s prose that draws you in as Strafford interviews the household at Ballyross House or talks to the locals at the inn. The novel is as much a (genteel yet barbed) commentary on the divisions between class and religion as it is a murder investigation.
Authentic in its setting, Snow may be slight as a detective novel, but its a rich, thoughtful tale of Ireland in the 1950s and a time of Banville’s own County Wexford childhood.