Snow by John Banville

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Snow by John Banville

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: We're used to Banville's alter ego, Benjamin Black, writing crime novels
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: October 2020
Publisher: Faber & Faber
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0571362677

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Shortlisted for the Sapere Books Historical Dagger 2021

Well, at least you're a Wexford man.

So said Colonel Osborne when he welcomed DI St John (pronounced 'Sinjun') Strafford to Ballyglass House just before Christmas 1957. Osborne was master of the Keelmore Hounds and had done something memorable with the Inniskilling Dragoons at Dunkirk. The niceties had to be established even when there was a Catholic priest dead on the library floor with some precious bits of his anatomy missing. Strafford was from Roslea at Bunclody and this, along with his good-but-shabby suit, marked him out as of Osborne's class and obviously Protestant. The dead priest was Father Tom Lawless from Scallanstown, who - despite the different religions - was in the habit of spending time at Ballyglass House. His horse was stabled there.

It's practically a closed-room mystery. Strafford was in charge of the case because he was visiting his father at Roslea and could get to the murder scene, which was no easy matter because of the deep snow, which continued to fall. DS Ambrose Jenkins was on his way from Dublin. There are no signs of forced entry, so it's difficult to think that the murderer is other than someone who was in Ballyglass House the night before, although Colonel Osborne is insistent that a group of tinkers should be rounded up. He's also somewhat surprised that Ambie Jenkins is allowed to speak without getting permission from his senior officer - and that Strafford should expect that the sergeant will eat with them.

The niceties have extended to the clearing up of the crime scene. Copious amounts of blood have been removed and the stair carpet has been cleaned. Mrs Osborne discovered the body but the colonel then adjusted the priest's clothing so that the mutilation was not immediately visible. There was remarkably little for the forensic team to go on but what had happened before Strafford arrived was down to ignorance. He would soon encounter deliberate obstruction. The head of the Catholic Church, Dr John Charles McQuaid, called Strafford in to see him: what had happened would be put down to a tragic accident when the priest fell down the stairs. Investigation was unnecessary. The press release had already been issued.

Strafford's thirty-five but there's an emotional immaturity about him. He occasionally moons over the women he encounters, from the almost-transparent Sylvia Osborne to her step-daughter Lettie and finally the maid at the pub where he's staying. He broke up with his girlfriend some time ago - or rather, she broke it off when she threw a glass of wine at him. But, there's a determination, a stubbornness about him and the more Dr Quaid says to try to persuade him from investigating, the more determined he is to find out what happened.

It's John Banville, so the writing is exquisite. Sometimes I found myself rereading a phrase or a sentence just for the pleasure which the words gave. I'm used to crime novels coming from Banville's alter ego, Benjamin Black, and there is a nod to the Quirke series. Quirke is - apparently - now the State Pathologist and on his honeymoon. The plot of Snow is deceptively simple whilst you're reading but complex and carefully-constructed in retrospect. It's a book to read for the pleasure of reading and then to re-read, just to see how it was done.

I'd like to thank the publishers for making a copy available to the Bookbag.

If you'd like to start at the beginning of the Quirke series, you might like to see the review of Christine Falls.

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