“The body is in the library,” Colonel Osborne says, as if we are being ushered into a Golden Age detective novel. But we already know this because there are two preliminary pages, in italics, and we know the murdered man is a priest. When the colonel takes Detective-Inspector St John Strafford into the library, we learn that the body has been horribly mutilated and the crime scene disturbed.
This is a conventional opening and an arresting one. What we have is indeed in one sense a conventional and rather old-fashioned detective novel, which is fair enough since it is set in the Ireland of the 1950s. It is also, I think, the first crime novel that the doyen of Irish novelists today, John Banville, has chosen to publish under his own name, his previous crime fiction having been attributed to his nom-de-plume Benjamin Black.
In truth, though Banville employs and respects the method of the classic detective story, the question of whodunit is of marginal interest. Why the priest was murdered is more important, but the motivation is immediately evident, and Banville is more concerned with rediscovering the moral, social and political atmosphere of a now vanished Ireland, of the Republic dominated by the Catholic Church, a place where the murder of a priest has to be hushed up.
Colonel Osborne and Strafford himself belong to the decaying class of Protestant gentry, keeping up appearances with difficulty in their cold crumbling great houses. The dead priest, a keen hunting man, kept his horse in the colonel’s stables, and frequently stayed the night in the big house, his association with the Protestant gentry meeting with disapproval from the Archbishop.
It’s a cold Christmas, all County Wexford covered in snow and the roads treacherous, the atmosphere beautifully evoked. Indeed atmosphere, as often with Banville, is what really matters, far more than plot. Strafford himself, reserved, dissatisfied, lonely is a convincing if not energetic investigator. He will solve the crime but no justice will be done. Perhaps, as the local Garda officer says, the priest was a cancer who deserved what he got. It is late in the novel that the reason for this judgement is made clear: a document written by the priest which might be considered confessional if it wasn’t also self-pitying. There’s some awkwardness about this interpolation. We, the readers, have it; the characters in the novel don’t.
No great matter: the novel is rich in pleasures: the chilly atmosphere of Osborne’s Ballyglass House, the evocation of the country inn where Strafford lodges – it doubles as a butcher’s shop; the rich array of characters: the poetry-quoting publican, a slightly sinister doctor who assiduously calls on the fey Mrs Osborne, her ne’er-do-well drunken brother, the local alcoholic Garda chief mourning a son who killed himself, a farouche boy who tends the Colonel’s horses and lives in a squalid caravan – all are thoroughly imagined and realized.
There are fine scenes also, two in particular which stand out. One is Strafford’s visit to the priest’s lonely and unhappy sister who kept house for him. The other comes when he is summoned by the Archbishop who makes it clear, though in carefully veiled and again chilly language that this is a case better set aside. Truth would be damaging. “The social contract,” the Archbishop says, “is a fragile document. Do you take my point, at all?”
Banville brings off an astonishing double. On the one hand he presents us with a picture of a narrow, barren society in which the establishment of the truth is regarded by authority as unsettling, dangerously divisive, and therefore undesirable. On the other hand his evocation of this dank, now-buried Ireland, with its bitter memories of the war of independence and the civil war which followed, memories which still corrupt the present is, despite its harsh injustice, strangely enchanting.
This is a novel which demands and deserves to be read slowly, with close attention. It had me doing what I rarely have time or indeed inclination to do with a book that comes for review: to go back to the beginning and read it again with an even deeper pleasure and admiration.
John Banville: Snow, Faber & Faber, 336pp, £14.99
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