"Snow" | Reviewed by William Winkler
It is the week before Christmas, 1957. Novice Detective Inspector St. John Strafford has been dispatched by headquarters in Dublin to investigate the murder of a popular priest at the crumbling Osborne mansion in southeastern Ireland, near the Irish Sea.
This is the setting of “Snow,” the most recent novel from prolific Irish author John Banville, one of Ireland’s most acclaimed writers. Banville has written novels, short stories and screenplays under his own name and a series of crime novels under the pen name Benjamin Black.
Strafford arrives at Osborne manor in a blinding snowstorm to find that the priest’s body has been cleaned and arranged at the spot where he died in the library. He soon discovers that the body has been mutilated. Upon initial interrogation each member of the household claims to have not seen or heard anything during the night of the murder. Yet each of claims that it would have been unlikely that an outsider would have been able to gain entry to the house.
As Strafford delves further into his investigation he peels back, layer-by-layer, new and disconcerting revelations about the Osborne family. He learns more about the Protestant Osbornes and their relationship with the priest. And from the inhabitants of the nearby village he gains insight into the family’s history and their relationship to the locals.
A theme that courses through the book is the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church over the affairs, both political and legal, of the young Republic of Ireland. A central scene describes a meeting between Strafford and the Archbishop of Dublin, who makes it clear that many details of the crime will never be made public unless Strafford wishes to spend the remainder of his career in some isolated and forlorn outpost, a threat the prelate has the power to bring to being.
Branville is a skilled storyteller with a polished prose style. The novel moves along at a pace that will keep the reader involved in the story while at the same time fleshing out details that add to the richness of the narrative. Branville sprinkles the text with enough Irish expressions (who knew that “tinker” was a derogatory Irish term for “gypsy?”) to keep the reader’s imagination firmly rooted in Irish soil. And he drops enough hints and foreshadowing that the astute reader is likely to arrive at the solution at the same time as the inspector. But there is yet one more surprise to be revealed in the epilogue.
Those who enjoy mystery or suspense fiction will find “Snow” a pleasant diversion in the coming fall and winter months.