Book Review: Snow by John Banville (2020)

“Snow” by John Banville 

Published October 6, 2020

“Snow” by John Banville is an historical novel that uses the classic cozy mystery format to reveal more than just whodunit.

Detective Inspector St. John Strafford (that’s Strafford with an “r,” as he diligently points out in nearly every introduction) is a Dublin detective sent south to the County of Wexford to investigate the murder of a Catholic priest just before Christmas, 1957. Upon his arrival, Strafford is met with a horrific scene. Father Tom has been found dead, in the library, his body mutilated. Immediately the heedful Strafford notices how much like a mystery play it all is with each new person he meets acting out their assigned role. It is up to him to dig under the surface of the sets, costumes and characters to find out who committed the crime and why.

Much of Strafford’s detecting takes place at the scene of the crime – a derelict ancestral mansion housing retired Colonel Osborne and his family. The dwelling alone provides Strafford clues on its inhabitants. The mansion, called Ballyglass, is a seemingly complete manor with vast grounds, a stable (where Father Tom lodges his horse) and multiple wings with endless space. But inside, the house is cold. Any amenities it still has are in disrepair and most of the rooms have been blocked off, leaving only a small amount of space for a family of four. The Colonel, a Protestant, seems to be in denial about his crumbling mansion and the irrelevancy of his ancestral position. He is holding on to a both a former Ireland and the parts of Ireland still steeped in conflict. The Colonel’s wife, the second Mrs. Osborne as Strafford thinks of her, takes on the role of the mad woman. A local doctor comes to see her almost daily under the guise of tending to her fragile condition. The Colonel’s son, Dominic, appears to be a bit unstable as well. He is trying on the mannerisms, air and even clothes of his father as he works to figure out which part he should play. The Colonel’s daughter, Lettie, switches roles and costumes with each new interaction. She never lets Strafford see the exact same version of herself but keeps her recognizable sharp tongue with each change of face. While uncovering this family’s secrets and motivations, Strafford can’t rule out any of the characters that orbit around the mansion. There is an orphaned stable boy (who has an almost feral presentation and who lives on the grounds of the manor), the jovial local innkeepers (who are former guardians of the stable boy and house Strafford during his stay), the Second Mrs. Osborne’s opportunistic brother (who has been banned from the house) and the local police chief (who had his own unfortunate ties to Father Tom). 

To complicate matters, Strafford did not simply receive the assignment to solve the crime in Wexford County because he was available. It is his home county. His supervisor (who is distracted with his own problems any time Strafford attempts to check in) sent Strafford because he is a local. It was assumed that Strafford would be able to work within the local culture and get to the bottom of the mystery sooner than an outsider would. While true, Strafford’s connections to the area cause his own secrets and discomforts to start simmering just below the surface.

Detective Strafford, acting as a local and an outsider all at once, resigns himself to uncover whodunit. But there are a few more obstacles in his way. Local law enforcement is of little help, The Catholic Church is aggressively trying to stop the investigation, his second in command has gone missing and it just will not stop snowing.  

“Snow” has all the trappings of a cozy mystery novel. After all, there is a murder in the library of a crumbling mansion. The dysfunctional family who lives in the mansion composes the core of the suspect pool. There are plenty of references to the divine, sin and morality. There is even an early nod to an orangutan. While the cozy rules provide the bones to this story, it is simultaneously a more personal examination of Strafford and a larger comment on complex culture in Ireland during the late 1950s. 

St. John (pronounced Sinjun) Strafford is unwilling to share his unusual first name and is annoyed by having to constantly correct others on his last name. He reluctancy to share his odd first name throughout the story underlines his disinterest in standing out or being noticed. He is already too aware that he does not fit in to any mold. Just as he is aware that those around him are desperately committed to playing certain roles, he notices they are eager to cast him correctly within the narrative. However, Detective Strafford, not by any loud protest or even active decision making, just is outside the norm. He is a Protestant in a country that operates as a theocracy under Roman Catholicism. He has lived his adult life in modern Dublin, but he has deep roots to the countryside of Wexford. It is unusual for a man with his background to become a police officer, but he can’t remember having any particular reason for choosing his career path. The crumbling Ballyglass is not unlike his childhood home, where his father still lives. Colonel Osborne is confused by Strafford’s lack of adherence to both Protestant and upper-class norms. Once he introduces himself as a policeman, it is not uncommon for the recipient of the introduction to remark that he does not look at all like a policeman. He approaches his level of attraction to several female characters with a kind of out of body curiosity that he should be experiencing lust or loneliness at all. He does not present to the world as a Protestant, as a policeman, as man who desires companionship, as an Irishman. Yet, all of those things are major pieces of Strafford’s identity. His ability to sit outside himself as an observer is beneficial to his role as detective and is essential to solving this case. However, I can’t help but wonder, does his capacity to detach leave Detective Strafford with no real understanding of himself? And while Strafford is relatable and even likeable, his detachment can feel contagious to the reader, imprinting a feeling of apathy not appropriate for the story. 

(Trigger Warning; Sexual Abuse)

(Spoilers)

While the sexual misconduct of Catholic Priests is still deeply disturbing, it is not new news today. However, Ireland’s reconning with predatory clergy has occurred more recent than most nations and was definitely a taboo subject in 1957. Banville chooses to explore the most certain probability that abuse was rampant and systemic at this time. 

Banville writes two chapters from the perspective of Father Tom Lawless. We begin the story with his account of his own murder, and he reasserts himself later to try and justify his actions to the reader. The second moment of Father Tom’s voice seems abrupt and intrusive, but perhaps that’s the intention. As the story proceeds, we learn that there are many victims of Father Tom’s behavior. Each victim has had their life impacted in a different way. We can’t narrow the definition of victim to describe literally the people Father Tom has abused. As we zoom out, we see how Tom’s crimes effect individuals close to those he has physically harmed as well as the cracks created in the community as the impact spreads. Just as the victim is not singular, neither is the abuser. Every clergy member met or referenced in “Snow,” tasked with upholding morality, ultimately serves as an evil catalyst – leading to a snowballing series of events ending with lives destroyed and lost.

Banville’s strength is weaving heavy subject matter, the main character’s struggle with identity, metaphor and a classic mystery plot into an eloquent novel with sometimes deceptively simple prose. To achieve this hard-won balance, Banville seems to call upon the ultimate Irishman when working with the threads of Strafford’s identity conflict and comments on the Catholic Church. These were ideas often woven throughout James Joyce’s accounts of Irish life as well. The snow – which continues to fall with varying degrees of treachery throughout the mystery – is an ode to James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The Snow in Joyce’s short story represents both literal death as well as what he seemed to view as the universal, inescapable, blanket of Irish identity. 

“It seemed to Strafford the snow was falling not only on the world but in his head, too. It might go on falling forever, steadily, silently, muffling all sound, all movement.” (p. 197)

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9tMtsSW1HY Accessed 31 January, 2021

Feurherd, Peter. “James Joyce, Catholic Writer?” JSTOR Daily. 2, February 2017

https://daily.jstor.org/james-joyce-catholic-writer/ Accessed 31 January, 2021

Shorto, Russell. “The Irish Affliction.” The New York Times Magazine. 9 February 2011

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/magazine/13Irish-t.html?pagewanted=2&hpw. Accessed 29 January, 2021

Wazl, Florence L. “Gabriel and Michael: The Conclusion of “The Dead”’ James Joyce Quarterly. Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 1996, pp. 17-31

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s