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Buy *Snow* by John Banville online

John Banville
Hanover Square Press
304 pages
October 2020
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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After the discovery of a body in the library, Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is called to the Colonel Osborne's ramshackle, crumbling-down house in County Wexford. Local priest Father Tom Lawless has been brutally murdered. Strafford is accustomed to "great and gaunt" cold houses as well as the continuous, unbroken whiteness on all sides in "the worst winter in living memory." Strafford has already cast a skeptical eye on the crime. There's not enough blood, given the wound inflicted. Lawless's body has also been tampered with.

Strafford has never heard the murder of a priest before, not in this country. Father Lawless was "very popular in these parts" and quite the character. To Strafford, it all seems theatrical, too much like the last scene of a drawing-room melodrama: "What had gone on here last night that had left this man dead and mutilated?" The first order of business for Strafford's team--including young, working class Sergeant Jenkins, still in his 20s, serious in manner and dedicated to his job--is to make a photographic record of the crime scene: "it was a priest that was murdered, after all." Strafford is once more struck by the strangeness of the killing. How could it possibly be that a Catholic Priest, "a friend of the house," should be lying dead in his own blood in Ballyglass House, the hereditary seat of the Osbornes?

Lean and leathery Colonel Osborne is a gentleman, debonair and enthusiastic enough, well-versed in the history of his Anglo-Protestant roots and the elaborate rituals of class and privilege by which he and his family have lived or have sought to live in these straitened times. In this isolated country house, we find that misery is expected, a contrast most evident in the rest of the family: daughter, Lettie, handsome son Freddie, and Fonesy, the stable boy who has a hold over the daughter, "the White Mouse." Lettie tells Strafford that the priest was always hanging around. There was something spooky about him--he was not at all pious or preachy and liked to drink, the life and soul of the party. The team are bored and cold and eager to get the "hell out of this big chilly gloomy bloody place" and head back as fast as their van can carry them.

While the attempted coverup of the Catholic Church is the crux of the novel, Banville's focus is on Strafford and his need to pursue happiness without sacrificing his career. There's something odd about this case in a way that Stafford had never encountered before. Also, Boss Chief Super Hackett wonders how long they are all expected to keep up the pretense. With Jenkins missing, the trail leads to Osborne's wife, who he 'found in the hall after she discovered Father Lawless' body. There's also the matter around the peculiar death of the first Mrs. Osborne.

Strafford's years as a policeman have taught him to be fearless. As the case unfolds, the various suspects invite fresh revelation. Fonesy looks like a big baffled child, a waif lost in the depths of the wood. How had he come to this, living alone in this desolate place? How could Lawless have fallen down the stairs in the middle of the night? Surely such a violent act would leave something behind, a trace or a tremor in the air, "like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling." Predictable are the machinations of the Catholic Church who shoulder their way in. The only question is how deeply the facts are buried in accordance with the violent death of a priest.

Delving deep into the wild snow, Banville's images come at us as if refracted through glass. Father Tom's deep, dark secret and dire circumstances ends up setting him against those around him. One senses keenly that Lawless's violent death was retribution for a phony fairy-tale life of piety. Events for Tom eventually spiral downward with treacherous repercussions. The voices of the Osborne children, Lettie and Dominic form a courageous narrative, the two determined to seek revenge on those who would take advantage of a young boy's innocence. Banville defly encapsulates a debauched life that lies beneath this pious Catholic exterior and the hypocrisy of an institution that seeks to cover it up. What had this young man made of the priest who shouldn't have been a priest? So many questions to be asked and so many stones are yet to be turned.

Beautiful and atmospheric, Banville constructs a particularly intricate jigsaw puzzle whose pieces Strafford is tasked with putting together. The cast of actors mill about in the wings: Osborne, the country squire, hero of Dunkirk, handsome despite his years; Freddie, who looks so much like him; Lettie, togged out in jodhpurs and riding jacket despite the fact she never gets on a horse; Mrs. Osborne, playing at least two roles, as the madwoman in the attic and the pert, young royal. Even apple-cheeked Mrs. Duffy is all too plausibly "the stock family retainer" who participates in the charade. And what of Rosemary Lawless, who feels that her brother had secrets? Who was it that called them together and allotted them their parts in the shadow play?

Strafford remains haunted by the priest lying on the floor in the library, his hands joined and his eyes open, "no longer conscious, no longer animate." While the man is dead, Strafford feels as though he's constantly stumbling through a snowstorm, dense and blindingly white. Perhaps the snow--a gorgeous symbol--will lead Strafford to a murderer perhaps hiding somewhere in plain sight.

Snowis a simple tale but rich and deep, constantly surprising. Like the rooks gathering daily in the tree outside Cal's cottage to monitor and scold the efforts of his labor, life goes on.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2020

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