Which is all to say that when Detective Inspector St. John Strafford, the glum main character of John Banville’s latest mystery, “Snow,” first thinks to himself that the murder case he’s investigating feels like something straight out of a mystery novel, we readers think little of it, except to perhaps credit Banville with a taste for metafiction. The first sentence of this novel, after all, is the announcement that: “The body is in the library.” That moldy line is uttered by a colonel (named Osborne, not Mustard) who’s the master of the manor house called Ballyglass House where the murder has taken place. A candlestick is a suspected murder weapon.
The fourth (or maybe it’s the 40th time), however, that Strafford thinks to himself that he’s trapped in a creaky, Clue-like game board of a mystery novel, the reader begins to suspect that a crime more foul than murder may have been committed here: namely, that a novelist may be arrogantly denigrating the very form that he himself can’t seem to bring to life.
“Snow” is terrible. Not just mundanely flat, but aggressively, sneeringly terrible. It’s the kind of novel that makes even the most ardent mystery fan reconsider the latent wisdom of critic Edmund Wilson’s famous 1945 essay, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson, who found Agatha Christie’s masterpiece — as well as almost all other mystery novels — to be the literary equivalents of crossword puzzles, would find ample support for his contempt in “Snow.” The fact that Banville himself keeps underscoring the woodenness of his own fictional construction doesn’t render it any more interesting.
“Snow” is set in 1950s rural Ireland, during a freak blizzard. The murder victim is one of those social-climbing Catholic priests — himself straight out of an Evelyn Waugh novel — who attaches himself to the landed gentry, even though the landed gentry of Ballyglass House are straggling members of the Protestant landowning class. A frequent guest at Ballyglass House, Father Tom Lawless, has been discovered dead — and gruesomely castrated — in the aforementioned library. As Chekhov should have said: “If in Chapter One you have murdered a priest, then by the final chapters of the novel, vengeful sexual abuse survivors must turn up.”
Ballyglass House and environs turn out to be chock-a-block with likely suspects, all as fully realized as Miss Scarlet and Professor Plum. There’s the high-strung, drug-addicted, much younger second wife of the colonel; his sexually promiscuous daughter and languidly handsome layabout of a son; and, the resentful “oaf” of a stable hand. All enter the novel festooned in cliches, as in this description of the hostile housekeeper, Mrs. Duffy:
“She too, like everyone else Strafford had so far encountered at Ballyglass House, had the look of a character actor hired that morning, and fitted the part all too convincingly. She was short and dumpy, with blue eyes and plump pink cheeks and steel-grey hair gathered in a bun.”
Granted, Banville makes more of an effort, initially, to imbue his detective, St. John (pronounced “Sinjun”) Strafford with some distinctive qualities. Strafford is himself of an aristocratic Irish Protestant background, which ensures that he’s shunned by both his police superiors and the underlings who report to him — all Catholics. But aside from that gesture at a backstory, Strafford is just another alienated detective doggedly searching for truth in a ruined world.
One wonders what Banville — who won the 2005 Booker Prize for his novel, “The Sea,” and has been writing the marvelous “Quirke” mystery series under his “Benjamin Black” pseudonym since 2007 — thought he was doing in writing this ostentatious crypt of a detective novel? In a recent profile in the New York Times, Banville announced he’s abandoned his “Benjamin Black” pseudonym because he no longer feels he needs to distance himself from his mysteries: In fact, Banville modestly boasted that upon rereading some of his earlier mysteries, he found them “quite good.” He’s right: The Benjamin Black books are “quite good.” Perhaps Banville shouldn’t have been so quick to jettison that pseudonym.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program, Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By John Banville
Hanover Square Press. 304 pp. $27.99