John Banville

Faber & Faber, £14.99


Graham Greene, a master of two types of fiction, famously labelled his pacier, pulpier novels “entertainments”. John Banville is equally ambidextrous, but instead of devising a neat designation to categorise his non-literary genre fiction he created a nom de plume. For Booker Prize-worthy work we read Banville. For noirish mysteries and fiendish whodunits we turn to Benjamin Black.

Banville’s latest offering should, by rights, carry the name of his alter-ego. For like each instalment in the hugely successful Quirke series allotted to Black, Snow is a crime novel set in 1950s Ireland. Quirke is even mentioned in passing – he has recently been appointed State Pathologist and is now off on his honeymoon. Taking his place as central protagonist is Detective Inspector St John Strafford. Trading under his real name for the first time for such a book is John Banville.

What prompted the author to dispense with his pseudonym on this occasion is unimportant; what matters is his intelligent and captivating thriller which keeps the reader hooked until the final sting in the tale.

One morning in the bleak midwinter of 1957, Strafford is sent from Dublin to County Wexford to investigate a murder at Ballyglass House, the country pile of the aristocratic Osborne family. Friend of the house and overnight guest Father Tom Lawless has been found viciously stabbed and “gelded”. Colonel Osborne, the head of the family, believes the killer is an outsider who broke in. Strafford finds no sign of forced entry and so, accompanied by his sidekick Sergeant Jenkins, he sets about interviewing those who slept in the house that night.

His inquiries bring him into contact with Osborne’s children – cocksure Dominic and wild-child Lettie – and close proximity with his sickly, volatile second wife Sylvia. Soon Strafford is casting his net wider, taking in Sylvia’s black-sheep brother, a “feral” stable-boy, and the staff of the village pub. “Damned fellow had it coming,” someone tells him. Another says there was something “oogey” about the deceased: “Like a Peeping Tom – that kind of oogey.”

Strafford sifts testimonies and evasions, ponders the significance of a missing whiskey glass and light-bulb, and listens to the strange circumstances surrounding the death of the first Mrs Osborne. Gradually, almost stealthily, Banville allows his plot to thicken: Strafford is threatened by a “smoothly sinister” archbishop, Jenkins goes missing, and secrets come to light concerning the priest’s past. Did Father Tom Lawless live up to his name? And why has no-one shed a tear over his brutal death?

Snow begins like an Agatha Christie novel: a country house, a body in the library and a range of suspects. Indeed, as a member of the forensics team remarks: “Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.” But as the narrative takes shape it becomes clear that this is no cosy murder mystery. It comes with an intriguing premise – a dead Catholic priest in a Protestant household – and an original sleuth. “You’re not the usual run of detective,” Strafford is told, which is wholly true of this young, privileged man who has no-one in his life and no interest in himself, only in the world around him.

Banville stirs in religious tension and class division without reducing momentum or impairing the atmosphere of queasy dread. At regular turns his functional, clear-cut prose is elevated by expertly crafted formulations and descriptions. Sylvia’s complexion is “pinkishly pale, the colour of skimmed milk into which had been mixed a single drop of blood”. The victim’s sister has “a taut, parched look”, which Strafford recognises as that of “a person caught in the furnace-glare of grief”.

Ignore the lacklustre title; this novel has complexity and heft. With luck it is no stand-alone case for Strafford but the first of many.