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In his latest novel, SNOW, John Banville presents a classic mystery, beginning with a body discovered in a classic spot: the library. It’s cold --- both the body and the library --- because it’s winter and the murder has been committed in a drafty mansion in the midst of a snowstorm during the run-up to Christmas. The victim has been stabbed, a classic method of killing. In a departure from the classic, though, is the nature of the victim, for this victim is the parish priest, Father Tom Lawless. Virtually no one murders a priest, not in Ireland, and especially not in 1957. Priests have an unspoken immunity to such heinous crimes against them. So who would dare to take the life of a holy man in a staunchly Catholic country?

"SNOW is a gritty mystery [with] an atmosphere that will send shivers down your spine and have you running for a well-lit, warm room."

Detective Inspector St. John Strafford travels from Dublin to Ballyglass to handle the investigation. When he arrives at the stately Osborne mansion, he is greeted by Colonel Osborne himself, who leads him to the recently deceased priest. Interviews with the Osborne family reveal nothing but fond words for Father Tom, with the exception of daughter Lettie. She has a rather caustic way of speaking about him, but that’s how she talks about almost anything. And son Dominic has a tendency toward derisive speech as well. The lady of the house floats around like a ghostly waif, often seeming sickly or suffering from a touch of insanity, so understanding her cryptic remarks can be tricky.

Strafford learns that the priest fell down the stairs, or maybe was pushed, after a knife had been plunged into him. As he first observes the scene in the library, he believes it has been staged, and he turns out to be correct. One of those present wanted to hide some rather embarrassing wounds inflicted on Father Tom, so they rearranged things. Upon hearing that, Strafford sighs. Having the body moved and evidence disturbed only makes it tougher to solve the murder. Why do people insist on “tidying up”?

Using all the tools at his disposal, Strafford works the case with the help of his deputy, Ambrose Jenkins. After interviewing everyone in the house, they split up and expand their questioning to more of Ballyglass. By day’s end, though, Jenkins has gone missing, leaving Strafford with another mystery on his hands. The townspeople are friendly enough, but one thing they definitely are not is forthcoming. However, Strafford is not one to give up, although Lord knows why, since the Archbishop seems to prefer that he did. And his own superior officer has suggested he simply sign off and come back to Dublin. It’s possible that he would have if not for Jenkins. With his deputy missing, there’s no way Strafford can leave. But if he were to be totally honest with himself, it is unlikely he would have anyway, as long as there are leads to follow. Besides, by this point, he has a fair idea about who murdered Father Tom and why.

SNOW is a gritty mystery, set in dark, bleak winter days in a secretive Irish village whose inhabitants have futures to protect and pasts they don’t want discovered. They aren’t thrilled to have this Dublin Detective Inspector disturbing their peace as they try to plan for their holidays. But Strafford is a bloodhound and won’t let the murderer go unmasked. Banville does a stunning job of capturing the chill --- of the residents, of the aristocratic Osbornes, of the weather --- and he uses it all to great advantage in creating a sinister mood, and joining it all together to build an atmosphere that will send shivers down your spine and have you running for a well-lit, warm room.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on November 6, 2020

by John Banville