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Snow-covered murder mystery: A review of John Banville’s new novel

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I cannot decide whether “Snow” is a bold or a timid title for John Banville’s new detective novel. Snow, of course, is stark — freshly fallen, it nearly glows with its whiteness. Anything set against it will stand out: a figure in the distance, a trail of footprints, a pool of blood. But snow, too, is silent and furtive; its falling and settling occur mutely, imperceptibly, covertly and in turn its settlement — on pavement, grass, rooftops — covers up and makes mute, softening and dampening the sights and sounds of the world into uniformity.

But these complications are, perhaps, the precise reason for Banville’s choice of title. Stark and secretive — for these two qualities of snow are not opposites; in fact, they oftentimes seem to complement each other. What else is more mysterious than snow, which proclaims its innocence with its perfect, clean surface and yet hides the world so well beneath it?

Indeed, it is a perfect question for a detective novel — evidence nearly erased by white, the answer to the crime just beneath the surface, right in front of you.

***

On the most basic level, snow is what surrounds Detective Inspector St. John Strafford as he investigates the gruesome murder of a Catholic priest in 1957 Ireland. The novel begins with a literal blank slate for Strafford, as “it had snowed continuously for two days, and this morning everything appeared to stand in hushed amazement before the spectacle of such expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides.” Arriving at the crime scene, which is the mansion of the Osbornes, a prominent Protestant family, Strafford begins to work his way through the mystery, speaking with each of the people present in the house and in its close vicinity. Banville’s characters — the cast of suspects, per se — each have their eccentricities which make them more vivid, even slightly haunting.

What is most baffling to Strafford, however, is that none of the people present in the house seem to particularly care that a priest was murdered in the dead of night while lodging at their home. As he reconstructs the events of the night, Strafford gets swamped instead by eerie details from the Osbornes’ family history. His investigation is muddled by past traumas and fraught relationships, deepening the mystery of the murder itself and extending our curiosity for the answer to it.

And in addition to this strangely personal aspect of the case, there is, again, the fact of the snow itself. The first night of the investigation, Strafford is speaking with someone at the local hotel, when the conversation lulls for a moment:

“There was a silence, and then from outside in the darkness there came a faint, soft, slipping sound. A section of snow, Strafford thought, must have slid off the roof. Was a thaw setting in? Then there would be slush, first foe of the sleuth in search of clues.”

Strafford is not only facing uncooperative witnesses — he is in a race against the erasing powers of time. Even when he first gets to the house, he finds that Mr. Osborne has told the housekeeper to clean the blood on the priest and tidy up the area, essentially tampering with the crime scene and with the evidence. Through this twist, Banville cleverly ups the stakes of his novel, adding a sense of suspense on top of curiosity.

All these elements of intrigue come together in “Snow” to give us a classically compelling mystery. Literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, in his essay “The Typology of Detective Fiction,” summarizes some of the rules of the traditional “whodunit” detective novel, and for the most part Banville follows them. Some of these tenets: “everything must be explained rationally”; “the culprit must have a certain importance”; and “kill for personal reasons”; and “banal situations and solutions must be avoided.” These rules give Banville’s novel shape, for they offer a structure by which he worked within to craft his particular story. In this way, “Snow” is rather conventional, and is worth a read for being a well-written, engaging and entertaining mystery, but not much more. It does not do much to subvert or “play with” its genre. And that isn’t a value judgment on my part; as Todorov notes, “the masterpiece of popular literature is precisely the book which best fits its genre.” If anything then, “Snow” is a testament to Banville’s mastery of detective fiction.

But despite Banville’s adherence to his genre, there is one thing about this story that is slightly different from the rest: the detective himself. Strafford has all the trappings of a competent inspector: He is stoic and unsentimental, has a keen sense of when something is amiss and is confident in his decisions and intuitions. And yet, somehow, he is always lost in the snow. Throughout “Snow, Strafford circulates around the same people and places, searching for an insight that will reveal to him something more about the mystery, but finding none. That night in the hotel, Strafford has “the sense of another soft slippage, but not outside this time”; as the clues pile up, their accumulation conceals rather than illuminates, and eventually the avalanche of information forces Strafford to restart. It is as if anytime he makes tracks through the white that falling flakes cover it all up again.

The trouble with reviewing a book in this genre is that I must be particularly careful not to reveal anything about the story. In the “whodunit,” the story is what one reads for — one glance ahead or spoiler and all is ruined. So, without giving anything away, I will highlight just one more aspect of classic detective fiction: that the culprit must always be identified by the end. It must be so for the completion of the story. The reader’s curiosity must be satisfied, the case closed. As Strafford says during a visit to the Archbishop, quoting Shakespeare: “Murder will out.”

But as Strafford makes to depart, the Archbishop stops him in the doorway to say, simply, “Chaucer.” “I beg your—?” Strafford responds, and the Archbishop clarifies:

“‘Murder will out.’ It’s Chaucer, not Shakespeare. It appears in the Priest’s Tale, in fact. ‘Murder will out, that see we day by day.’”

A slight slippage for Strafford, perhaps — yet slippage nonetheless. These are small moments in which, suddenly, Strafford’s authority as the detective comes under scrutiny. As we read “Snow,” we slowly begin to wonder if Strafford will really solve his case. If murder will out. Or if Strafford instead will also become submerged in the snow, so prominently proclaimed as the subject of this story and yet so bewildering, so cold and so empty.

Contact Lily Nilipour at lilynil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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