John Banville

John Banville’s new novel, Snow, begins with this magnificent grabber: “‘I’m a priest, for Christ’s sake – how can this be happening to me?’”

We learn straight away what happened to him on a snowy Irish night in 1957 – a mutilative murder most foul.

The urgent question, of course, is whodunit? Banville moves toward the answer in a suspenseful, beautifully written story that invokes many of the classic elements of Agatha Christie-era mysteries.

The priest was murdered at the crumbling manorial home, Ballyglass House, owned by a fading aristocrat, Colonel Osborne. The home is filled with an assortment of colorful characters who have one thing in common: all are suspects. It is up to his intrepid investigator, DI St. John Strafford, to sort it out.

Banville’s characters seem aware that they are caught in a story. The priest’s body was found in the coziest of murder locations, the library, leading one cop to comment: “‘It’s a library … It’s an actual fucking library, and there’s a body in it!’”

Later, we get this: “Jesus Christ, will you look at this place?” another detective exclaims. “Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.” Banville writes:

He stopped, and with his fingernails tapped a rapid tattoo against his front teeth. Yes, he thought, yes, that was what had been nagging at him, from the moment he had first arrived at Ballyglass House. Everyone seemed to be in costume, seemed to be dressed for a part. They were like a cast of actors milling about in the wings, waiting to go on. There was Colonel Osborne—he must have spent an hour in front of the mirror, rigging himself out as what he was or what lie he wished to seem to be—country squire, hero of Dunkirk, handsome still despite his years, wielder of a straight bat, blunt, bluff and safely dim. And here was his son, got up to look as much like him as could be managed, in tweed and twill, brown brogues and checked shirt, with his hair slicked back military fashion. There was Lettie [Osborne’s daughter], too, when Strafford had first encountered her, togged out in jodhpurs and riding jacket despite the fact she never got on a horse. And there was Mrs. Osborne, who so far had played at least two roles, first as the madwoman in the attic, and then, in that absurd tea party charade, as a pert young royal, with Queen Elizabeth pearls and her blue frock and clipped vowels.

Why even apple-cheeked [housekeeper] Mrs. Duffy was all too plausibly the stock family retainer.

But for whose benefit had they got themselves up to be so thoroughly convincing that, like even the best actors, they didn’t quite convince? And who was it that had called them together and allotted them their parts in the shadow play?

Or was he imagining it all? There was always the danger, in his job, of seeing things that weren’t there, of making a pattern where there wasn’t one. The policeman insists that there be a plot. However, life itself is plotless.

Yet a man had been murdered, and someone had murdered him. That much had happened. And the person who had done the deed was hiding somewhere here, in plain sight.

Banville’s acknowledgement of the genre he is writing in never interferes with the reader’s suspension of disbelief in a mystery that also provides a compelling portrait of class and religious differences – the Osbornes and Strafford are Protestants in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation. Even as he masterfully moves his characters around his literary chess board, Banville exquisitely gets inside their minds to give them the pulse of flesh and blood.

His readers expect nothing less. Hailed by William Boyd, among others, as “Ireland’s greatest living novelist,” Banville is best known for his literary novels including, The Sea, (2005, winner of the Booker Prize), The Infinities (2009) and Mrs. Osmond (2017).

But he’s also had a thriving second career as a mystery writer – under the pen name Benjamin Black (as well as a third, fourth and fifth career as a screenwriter, essayist and critic). Indeed, several of his “literary novels,” especially The Book of Evidence (1989) and The Untouchable feature pulpy elements.

Now, it seems, Banville the mystery writer has come out from the cold. Snow is the first true mystery he’s written under his own name and, we hope, it won’t be his last.

John Banville’s Top Ten List

1. Ill Seen, Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981).
2. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864).
3. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
4. Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1947).
5. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
7. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (2001).
8. Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1950).
9. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735).
10. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847–48).