What distinguishes Strafford from almost all of his colleagues in the Garda, the Irish police force, is that he is from the same class as the Osbornes, the family he is investigating, and a Protestant. Banville makes excellent play with this pairing. Strafford confuses the Osbornes; he’s one of them, yet he’s also potentially their enemy. The family is bizarre and riven with mutual antagonisms. Colonel Osborne is a bluff military man, a widower. His second wife is skittish and mentally ill, possibly addicted to morphine. His daughter and son dislike their stepmother intensely. Various retainers help maintain their status.
Strafford enters their world and has to determine which one of them could have committed such a wanton murder. The colonel thinks someone broke into the house. Slowly but surely the family hostilities and fraught back stories point Strafford in a particular direction.
I won’t reveal how the plot thickens. Banville’s depiction of the young republic that Ireland then was (real independence came only in 1937) is fascinating. More telling for Strafford’s investigation is the way the Roman Catholic Church held enormous sway — politically and emotionally — over the country and its people, a sway that has only recently diminished. James Joyce described the Irish at the beginning of the 20th century as “an unfortunate priest-ridden race,” and Banville’s County Wexford assumes this still held true in the 1950s.
There are two strange diversions in the novel where the point of view — Strafford’s — is dramatically broken. One reveals a bizarre and disturbing sexual encounter; the other is a first-person confession that, in effect, gives most of the game away. The alert reader, picking up the clues that Banville drops, would have been very close to divining what the motivation for the murder was without this confession. These swerves in the narrative remind us that we’re reading a novel by John Banville, not an Ed McBain procedural or a Dorothy L. Sayers whodunit. In “Snow,” Banville’s engagement with the genre of crime or detective novels is partial. His ambitions for his novel are more complex.
Banville himself was born in County Wexford in 1945. As an adolescent in the 1950s, he would have known the world of the Osbornes and the local Irish communities in the countryside and how they interacted — or didn’t. The book sings with authenticity and Banvillian tropes. It is full of very precise description of clothes and appearance; the writer concentrates on people’s eyes in particular. Smells preoccupy him. He indulges in anthropomorphism: Bookcases “stare,” books display an attitude of “mute resentment,” trees “press forward with desperate eagerness.” Banville is one of the great stylists of fiction in English and “Snow” allows the limpid cadences of his prose free rein:
“It was as if he had fallen briefly asleep and dropped at once into the midst of a powerful and deeply revelatory dream, all the details of which turned transparent the instant he woke up, though the sense, the afterglow, of their significance remained.”
An entertainment, perhaps, but a superbly rich and sophisticated one.