Review: A murder most fortunate: John Banville kills off his own pen name for the better
On the Shelf
By John Banville
Hanover Square: 304 pages, $28
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First, Banville carefully constructs the layers of a classic country-house murder mystery. It’s Christmastide 1957, and at the Northern Ireland estate of Ballyglass House, a grisly maiming and death has taken place. Roman Catholic priest Father Thomas Lawless has been found in a pool of his own blood in the Ballyglass library, and Detective Inspector St. John Strafford has been called in to interview members of the upper-crust Anglo-Irish Osbornes. Strafford himself is a member of the Protestant gentry and therefore subject to numerous jibes and japes as he encounters the characters in question.
It’s all there: the body in the library; the inspector on the case; the starchy ex-military man of the house; the flighty second wife; the sullen, eccentric children; and so much more. Chintzes and old carpets and an angry cook who is a dab hand with a roast; a half-feral young man who looks after the horses and lives in a caravan; a pretty barmaid named Peggy and her jovial employers at the local inn; even an arch-villain of an archbishop.
It sounds, actually, like the foundation of a mystery novel by Benjamin Black, John Banville’s alter ego for over a decade. Black, as Banville has often told interviewers, wrote straightforward prose, not novels like “The Sea,” which earned Banville the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Black’s protagonist, Quirke, is a pathologist whose Dublin “is soaked in my recollections,” as Banville told the Guardian in 2014. Beginning with “Christine Falls” in 2006 and ending with “Even the Dead” in 2016, the Quirke books are, Banville has said, all about craft. A standalone Black novel, “The Secret Guests,” was published early this year.
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Recently, however, Banville told the New York Times that he shut Black “in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him.” “Snow” is his first mystery written under his own name.
What we get, then, is a salubrious hybrid. While the setup might resemble a Black novel, the prose reflects Banville at his best, especially when he’s describing the titular weather: The tops of trees have strips of snow “that glistened like granulated sugar”; snow on the landscape looks “unreally neat and picturesque, like a decorative scene on a Christmas cake”; the snow has ceased, “but from the big-bellied look of the sky it was certain that there was more to come.” Anyone who has settled in by this point for a first-class whodunit will need to pay attention when Strafford reminds Police Chief Hackett that “Snow is general all over Ireland.” Hackett doesn’t recognize the quote, from the last paragraph of James Joyce’s famous short story “The Dead.”
Without analyzing “The Dead,” which is a meditation on universal grief, it’s safe to say that Banville means to refer to some great pall cast over the island. It’s easy to suspect, given the amount of dialogue devoted to religious divisions (“Protestantism is not so much a religion as a reaction against a religion, isn’t that so?” the archbishop says to Strafford) — that the murder and mayhem have something to do with Ireland’s sectarian battles.
Joyce is hardly the only literary reference; they come fast and furious — T.S. Eliot, Chaucer and Shakespeare, among others. However, when the action is cut short on Christmas Eve for an “Interlude,” the Irish artist in my head was Yeats, whose “The Second Coming” asks: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” In a scant few pages, Banville literally upends his beautifully constructed house of cards with a violence and savagery that feels wholly earned. The true voice and face of evil resides here in a system that purports to hold up the Irish people but rots from within. To say much more would not spoil the plot, but it might spoil the effect of the damage done.
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When we return to Christmas morning, we’ve seen the rough beast born, and so has Strafford. Although he’s lain in a room at an inn, plied with gifts and a full breakfast, the clues he’s carefully followed point to a chain of deaths stemming from the original bloodshed. Is it all predictable? Perhaps. If you’re expecting a razor-sharp fair-play mystery, you’re in the wrong place. Banville has written that type of narrative successfully. He didn’t kill off Black in order to write Black’s books. He means to use Black’s framework for his own purposes.
In doing so, Banville joins an illustrious group of authors who have understood that the conventions of genre can expand fiction’s possibilities. Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Victor LaValle, P.D. James, N.K. Jemisin and so many others have used their artistry to enlarge dystopian and science fiction, horror and mystery and, definitely not least, so-called literary fiction. Banville flicks away his house of cards not simply for the fun of watching it scatter, but in order to reveal what lies beneath. While the class-conscious “Prods” have been worrying about dressing for dinner and “keeping up the side,” working-class Roman Catholics have been whisking their daughters away to homes for wayward girls and detention centers for difficult boys.
And at the center that doesn’t hold is St. John Strafford. His first name, with its patrician pronunciation (“Sinjun”), is no accident. Strafford functions as the imperfect but decent human who still believes in justice and compassion. He’s a strong protagonist, so readers who enjoy “Snow” will be glad to know that Banville isn’t done with him; he has hinted that in his next mystery, Strafford will become involved with the Quirke family.
Now that Banville has removed the shroud of Black, all that remains to be seen is whether the Strafford-Quirke partnership will generate anything close to the righteous fury that blankets “Snow” and all of poor Ireland.
There were two separate narratives in the United Kingdom after the announcement that Anna Burns’ novel “Milkman” had won the 2018 Booker Prize.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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