Snow by John Banville

‘The body is in the library,’ Colonel Osborne said.  ‘Come this way.’

Winter 1957, County Wexford, Ireland.  The mutilated body of a highly respected parish priest is found in the library at Ballyglass House, the home of the aristocratic Osborne family.  Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called in from Dublin to investigate.  The doors were locked, the house was not broken into.  The crime scene has been cleaned and Father Lawless’s body has been ‘tidied up a bit’.  Who killed Father Tom Lawless, and why?  A murdered Catholic priest in a Protestant house: the police and the Catholic Archbishop both have an interest.

It has been snowing, and the snow continues to fall.  It is quite a contrast: the pure white snow, masking the usual surroundings as well as making movement challenging.  There’s mistrust as well between Catholics and Protestants, as well as between members of the Osborne family.  Detective Inspector Strafford meets silence at almost every turn.  The Archbishop wants to substitute his own version of what has happened to Father Tom Lawless, members of the Osborne family have some misdirection of their own.

‘A person acting on impulse can be lucky.  He’ll strike out without thinking, and afterwards everything looks natural, because it is.  But a plan always has something wrong with it.  There’s always a flaw.  Our job is to find it.’

DI Strafford and his investigations held my attention.  In the murder of Father Tom Lawless, the why might seem clear and the how will be obvious but the who hangs over the story.  There are secrets to be uncovered and, in an environment where the community is riven by mistrust, where covering up what happened is seen as desirable, finding answers was never going to be easy.  

The characters and their relationships are (mostly) well developed. The snow, by disguising the surroundings, adds a layer to the intrigue.  In this novel, Father Lawless’s murder is secondary to Mr Banville’s depiction of time and place.  

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Faber and Faber Ltd for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith