It’s not unusual for fictional detectives to have an eccentricity (or two), whether moustaches, monocle, melancholy, drugs, drink, or opera. These characters often stand apart: too posh, too fat, too sloppy, too forward-thinking, or even too much the amateur.
John Banville’s new detective, in Snow, is another outsider. He’s a “Prod” in an Irish Catholic police force in 1957. “A Protestant and a Garda officer—it even sounded wrong.” He doesn’t like to drink, which is almost as bad as liking it too much. While thinking, he taps his fingernails against his teeth. No one can remember his name (not Stafford, but Strafford, with an “r”). He’s no flashy crime-solver, though: “Strafford wasn’t good at solving puzzles, everyone knew that. His mind wasn’t made that way. He was what the Chief called a trudger.”
Banville plays with detective fiction’s conventions, creating a crime scene that even the characters recognize as a stereotype: a dead body in the library of a country mansion, complete with “antlers and the blackened portraits on the walls,” tweedy Colonel, mad wife, servants, horse stables. Says one member of the forensics team: “Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.” Yet the crime that Strafford must investigate is baffling: “priests just didn’t get murdered in this country, and certainly not in places like Ballyglass House.” Worse yet, the priest has been castrated: “. . . he was lying here when his tackle was cut off, balls, prick, the whole shebang.” Strafford wonders if he’s been assigned to this case, not because he’s a Protestant among Protestants (“You know the lay of the land down there . . .”), but because he’s doomed to failure.
There’s a lot going on in Snow beyond the solving of a crime—including a lot of snow: how it changes the landscape, hampers the ability to get around efficiently, affects our senses and sensibilities. The descriptions are memorable:
The sky was loaded with a swag of mauve-tinted clouds, and the air was the color of tarnished silver. It wasn’t snowing, but there had been the fresh fall in the night . . . The land all around was smooth and plump as a pillow. The gnarled bare boughs looked as if they had been blackened in fire. Strafford watched his breath smoke in the air. Summer was unimaginable.
There’s also a surprising amount of humor, given the seriousness of the crime, the background of the victim, the tensions between Catholics and Protestants and between the Church and the police. In a scene that made me laugh out loud, Stafford has been summoned to the Archbishop’s house, where the detective will be encouraged to withhold certain details of the crime from the public. He considers his surroundings while waiting to meet the prelate:
Above the mantelpiece there hung a framed reproduction of a comely, soft-bearded Jesus, tilting his head languidly and pointing two stiff fingers at his bared and profusely bleeding, flame-fringed heart. The Savior’s expression was both mournful and accusatory, as if to say, See what you did to me? His father called this portrait, prints of which were on display in every other parlor in Catholic Ireland, the Bearded Lady.
John Banville is a prize-winning “literary” author who previously wrote his detective fiction under the pseudonym Benjamin Black (the Quirke series, also set in mid-twentieth-century Ireland). I’ve tried to avoid reading reviews that probe why, with Snow, Banville opted to use his “real” name. To increase book sales at the behest of his publishers? Or to signal something more important? (There’s an article in The Atlantic I can’t wait to read as soon as I publish this post.) The more I think about this book—the detective fiction tropes, the crime, the victim (and his victims)—the more Snow seems to have been deliberately and quite artistically constructed around an issue that Banville wanted to explore and expose. If you want to uncover the ugliness of present-day Ireland, read Tana French. For the basis of that ugliness in earlier decades of the Republic, read John Banville and his alter ego, Benjamin Black.