Cover Image: SNOW

SNOW

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John Banville is a master. I have followed his career but this is the first mystery/thriller I've read of his. It has all of the pace you would expect of the genre, with a literary flair that gets deeper into the characters and is a joy to read.
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This is a very seriously disturbing but beautifully written take on the old country house mystery. I want to say it will be triggering for people who were abused in childhood. That is not meant as a spoiler, it's extremely graphic in a few scenes so be warned.
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It’s a long time since I read a book with an opening as utterly compelling as this one, and the magic didn’t stop there - the book held me engrossed right until the final surprise denouement. I have found John Banville’s writing somewhat variable in the past, but this book is nothing short of a masterpiece in my humble opinion. It opens with the body of a priest in the library of a crumbling Irish country house in the 1950s, and the story takes the reader through the police investigation which becomes so much more than a straightforward whodunnit. I read this in one sitting and the characters and settings were so real that I felt like a witness to the whole event. A highly recommended read.
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A beautifully written mystery set in rural Ireland in 1957. The Catholic Church is a major character with unfortunately modern resonances. On the surface filled with generic set pieces and characters— the village pub, the country house, the close-mouthed characters—this book digs deeper and achieves a poetic and disturbing impact. Very highly recommended!
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Irish literary writer John Banville usually writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, but this time around he has been brave enough to publish it under his own name. I can see why. It’s a very fine novel indeed, and while it traverses dark subject matter, it has a playful touch, including a reference to one of Benjamin Black’s better-known characters, the state pathologist Quirke, which greatly amused me.

Set in County Wexford in 1957, Snow is essentially a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House.

It’s one of those deliciously intriguing stories in which almost any one of the myriad characters interviewed by the young police detective could be the culprit. The magic of the mystery is enhanced by the evocative setting — a snowy few days around Christmas in the late 1950s — and the unusual circumstances —  a Catholic priest murdered in a stately home of the landed gentry.

The murder itself is a rather vicious and violent one: Father Tom Lawless is found in the library lying in a pool of blood. He’s been stabbed in the neck and castrated. There’s a candlestick near his head, but not much else by way of clues. The crime is so sordid the circumstances are not disclosed to the public; most people think he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries.

When Detective Inspector St John — “It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain — Strafford arrives on the scene, having travelled down from Dublin because the local Gardaí are indisposed, he interviews everyone living in Ballyglass House. This includes Colonel Geoffrey Osborne, who describes Father Tom as “very popular, in these parts”,  the stable boy, the housekeeper, Osborne’s adult children and his second wife. There’s a sense of deja vu because Osborne’s first wife died when she fell down the stairs many years earlier, so Strafford wonders if an undetected killer has struck again.

There’s a second mystery thrown in for good measure, when Strafford’s second in command, Detective Sergeant Jenkins, goes missing midway through proceedings.

Of course, for the modern-day reader, the motive for the murder of a priest is obvious, but Banville remains true to the period and shrouds the case in real mystery for Ireland at that time was devoutly religious and held priests in high esteem.

He throws in plenty of red herrings and potential culprits, but when the investigation reaches a stalemate he includes an “interlude” from 10 years earlier to get himself out of a problem he’s written himself into. This is the only jarring aspect of the book, which is filled with lush imagery and elegant turns of phrase.

The murder, for instance, is described as leaving “a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling”; a Labrador lying at someone’s feet is “as fat and torpid as a seal”; a pink satin eiderdown looks as “plump and smooth and shiny as a pie crust”; and a stubborn wine stain is “shaped like the faded map of a lost continent”.

The characters are all richly drawn and described in amusing detail.

"The first thing everyone noticed about Sergeant Jenkins was the flatness of his head. It looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg. How, people wondered, was there room for a brain of any size at all in such a shallow space? He tried to hide the disfigurement by slathering his hair with Brylcreem and forcing it into a sort of bouffant style on top, but no one was fooled."

There’s much focus on the divisions between class and religion, too, where men are judged just as much by their accents and the clothes they wear as they are by the church they attend and the tipple they drink.

"Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice. Strafford thought it absurd, another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on."

Snow is a hugely evocative, atmospheric tale, and told in such a filmic way, it would make a very fine telemovie or Netflix series. I loved it — and the Coda at the end, set in the summer of 1967, gives a new, intriguing twist that I never saw coming. This is historical crime fiction at its finest.
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I confess to having a love/hate relationship with John Banville, driven largely by exasperation. I have only read two of his books before, so apologise in advance to well-versed fans of his oeuvre. For me, his 2005 Booker winner The Sea was stilted and just too precious. The Infinities (2009) was slightly better, but did not exploit the full potential of its grand themes. Instead, it once again focused on style at the expense of substance.

I had no idea that Banville has been writing crime fiction under the pen name of Benjamin Black since 2006. In an interview with the TLS, he says that Black is a “competent craftsman” who writes much faster than Banville, the “Booker Prize-winning artist”. The latter will agonise over a single word, as if he were a disciple of Flaubert (Is that why The Sea reads so agonisingly slowly?) What is also a mystery is whether Snow is a Banville or a Black novel. In fact, it reads like a hybrid between the high-level and somewhat arch literary styling of the former and what one presumes is the more colloquial tone and approach of the latter.

As for why Snow has been released under Banville’s own name, the TLS notes (rather sniffily), that “it isn’t really crime fiction; it is a beautifully written, atmospheric, literary novel that begins with a murder.” Genre writers, especially crime, romance, SF and horror, have long been held in disdain by the purveyors of literary fiction, it seems.

Imagine to my surprise then that Snow is not only a crime novel to boot, but a detective potboiler of the kind that Agatha Christie churned out in her sleep. However, we soon realise we are not in Christie territory anymore:

“Jesus Christ, will you look at this place?” he wheezed. “Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.”

And:

“It’s a library,” he muttered incredulously to Hendricks. “It’s an actual fucking library, and there’s a body in it!”
Yes, the plot revolves around that much-loved trope of classic crime fiction, a body in the library. In this instance, it is a Catholic priest. Who happens to have been castrated. The first-person point of view of the priest opens the novel as he is surprised by the murderer, and then equally surprised at his own gristly demise. He appears again in a much later interlude that only serves to confirm the reader’s suspicions about the crime and its true motive, but which is a bravura piece of writing nevertheless in a book that is passionately literate. Hence a typical Banville novel ... but unlike anything he has written before under his own name, of course.

Suffice it to say that the murder mystery itself is given short shrift by the author and the reader (though there is a delicious sting in the last few pages that made me gasp). What is of chief enjoyment here is Banville’s wonderful characterisation of his motley cast of characters, from the stiff-upper-lipped Colonel Osborne, whose library the dead priest ends up in (and whose first wife died in mysterious circumstances), to the husband, wife and dog team that run the inn where our detective hero stays for the duration of the investigation.

I practically inhaled Snow over a couple of days’ frenzied reading. Not only did it keep me enthralled, but it is deeply funny and humane at the same time. Banville’s depiction of the Irish countryside and the weather is equally mesmerising, with the titular snow ever-present in the form of a blizzard that grows in intensity as the story unfolds. Yes, there are some of Banville’s beloved Greek allusions, especially the concept of ‘agape’, “the love of God for man and of man for God”.

But Banville’s touch here is infinitely lighter than the heavy-handed The Sea. His depiction of Ireland at the height of the Protestant/Catholic divide is deeply nuanced, yet acutely aware of the absurdity inherent in such an artificial barrier, which gave rise to so much unnecessary tragedy. This sense of playfulness mixed with melancholy, and Banville’s own keen affection for his characters (even the dead priest), is what makes this novel such a living, breathing wonder.
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Up to now John Banville has made a distinction between his literary novels and his crime novels, the latter written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black. In his latest novel, which is indeed another crime novel, he has decided to dispense with that conceit and publish it as John Banville. The distinction no longer seems relevant to him. He can be equally good (or bad) in both genres.  But for me this book was unsatisfying on both levels. As a crime novel it seems to be playing with the idea of the Golden Age locked room mystery, but with a rather supercilious and knowing wink to the readership, whilst at the same time offering a literary novel, which unfortunately falls flat. The main problem for me was the characterisation – everyone seems to be out of central casting, something that Banville acknowledges, but it doesn’t make for an interesting novel if the characters are never more than caricatures. And then there’s the plot. A Catholic priest is murdered in the country house of a Protestant family, all of whom were at home on the night of the murder, it seems, so they are all suspects. Set in 1950s rural Ireland, a young detective, St. John Strafford, from the Protestant land-owning class, is sent to solve the crime. It’s never explained why he should be serving in the Irish police force, but his slow and careful investigation gradually uncovers the increasingly dark secrets behind the murder – secrets within the family, the Catholic Church and Irish society. But it’s all so predictable and unconvincing and so very old. Write about the Catholic Church in Ireland and straight away the reader expects sexual abuse. Write about sexual abuse and straight away we think of ecclesiastic cover-ups. And that’s what we get here. Nothing new. No revelations. No new ground to explore. And with a cast of frankly bizarre characters, who excite no sympathy, plus far too many murders and suicides, and a whole slew of clichés (“Death makes everything difficult”) and linguistic infelicities, this book has a very amateur feel to it. Not to mention a really jarring description of a lampshade looking as though it were made out of human skin. Really? In an Irish murder mystery? Tasteless, at the very least. Mind you, I quite liked the idea of a tweed suit “the colour of porridge”. Never seen one like that before. So all in all a weak and disappointing novel, mediocre, and too reliant on the tropes of Irish fiction.
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Thank you to Netgalley, Faber and Faber and John Banville for this advanced reader's copy in return for my honest review. An engrossing mystery set in small town Ireland in the 1950's. An devilishly clever Agatha Christie style whodunnit. I enjoyed this clever book filled with tension and atmosphere.
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Most of Snow takes place in 1957, although an epilog recounts a meeting between two characters ten years later. Snow is the first of a two-book deal featuring St. John Strafford, a Protestant detective in Catholic Ireland. The same character appeared in The Secret Guests, a novel set during World War II that John Banville published under his penname Benjamin Black. Apparently, Banville has decided that he no longer needs to publish crime novels under a penname, or perhaps his publisher told him that his books will sell better if he publishes them under his real name.

Strafford is assigned to investigate the death of a priest named Father Tom in a prosperous Protestant home where Father Tom was a frequent guest. The killer cut off Father Tom’s junk, perhaps making the motive for the crime obvious, priests being notorious for misusing their junk.

Since the house was locked on the night of the priest’s death, suspects are limited to family members and the stable boy. The semi-doddering patriarch has a new wife, the first one having died in a fall on the same staircase where Father Tom was murdered. Most of the story’s modest intrigue comes from the interaction of the family members. Banville also tries to generate interest with the church’s desire to avoid publicizing the circumstances of the priest’s death and the discomfort that Strafford is made to feel as a member of a religious minority in Ireland.

Banville gained fame as a prose stylist. Reading the well-crafted language of a Banville novel is always pleasant, but he clearly doesn’t make the same effort in genre novels that he once devoted to literary fiction. His genre prose isn’t as dense or as lyrical as his literary prose. Nor does Banville’s genre work have the depth of his earlier books. While crime is a theme in some of Banville’s literary novels, including his most celebrated work, The Book of Evidence, his genre crime novels lack the heft of his best work.

The difference is evident in Snow. The novel follows the formula of a mystery novel by asking the reader to decide which of several suspects might be the murderer. While the clues seem to point in the direction of one or two characters, Banville employs the misdirection that characterizes the genre, only revealing the full truth of the crime in the epilog. The revelation doesn’t come as much of a surprise, giving the sense that Banville just isn’t trying very hard. The plot is certainly no better than average for a genre crime novel.

A writer can’t be faulted for writing books that sell, and crime fiction typically outsells literary fiction, but the best writers in the crime genre fuse the strongest qualities of literary fiction and genre fiction. Banville hasn’t done that.

I’m giving Snow a cautious recommendation because Banville holds the reader’s interest with a mildly entertaining if undemanding story. Readers who are looking for something more from a writer who was once regarded as a rising literary giant will likely be disappointed.

RECOMMENDED
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Detective Inspector Strafford is called upon to find the murderer of Father Tom, a Catholic priest, at Ballyglass House in County Wexford, Ireland.
The investigation is hampered by both the continual falling snow and the obstruction of the suspects.
The book is raised above the level of a typical country house murder mystery by the level of the writing, as would be expected by a novel written by John Banville. It is the literary prose and depth of characterisation that makes this a satisfying read rather than the plot.
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Ireland, 1957: A priest has been murdered in Ballyglass House, the estate of a Protestant Upper class family. DI Stafford has been called in to investigate. Christmas is approaching and the snow is falling heavily. DI Stafford and DS Jenkins must work quickly to solve the heinous crime. 

This book portrays the history of Irish Catholicism. Ireland was ruled under the Catholic Church by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. There's quite a few suspects who all have motives. The snow creates an ominous impression to the story. The story also covers serial abuse and mutilation.  It's beautifully written ith many clues revealed along the way. I did work it all out but that does not s
Oil a story for me. This is as account of a time in Irelands history.

I would like to thank #NetGalley, #FaberAndFaber and the author #JohnBanville for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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An atmospheric whodunnit set in Ireland. Banville is a master at scene setting. The characters are familiar to someone who grew up in small town Ireland, and the care given to social history is exceptional. This novel reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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Didn't like this book. It was too much like Cluedo. The descriptions of scenery and places were great but I did not like the characters. Too typical of what you would expect.
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Banville’s latest mystery has a dark undercurrent, something that both the reader and the detective can feel but can’t quite pin down. The title reverberates throughout the novel with a definite chill placed upon all of the characters. A priest is killed and mutilated and Strafford, our detective, is tasked with solving the mystery. He has to penetrate a veil of silence laid down by the Catholic Church and exaggerated by his status as a Protestant man in a mostly Catholic town. A quiet and foreboding mystery.
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I really enjoyed the first half of this book. Of course Banville writes beautifully and really knows his Irish home and its history.

Detective Strafford is an interesting and sympathetic main character and we are plunged straight into the action with the rather nasty murder of a Catholic priest, found in the library of an historic mansion. Things become a little bizarre as all of the family members in the house seem slightly mad in one way or another.

So the build up was good but about half way through it seemed Strafford began to go around in circles, especially regarding the female characters involved. What was he thinking? The murderer was pretty obvious although Banville introduces an interesting possibility in the epilogue which leaves the reader with more to think about.

A good read but not an outstanding one.
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A brilliant country house mystery complete with a body in the library, that of a highly respected parish priest. Snow is falling and the more Detective Inspector St. John Strafford tries to solve the case, the more those involved attempt to keep their secrets. John Banville has written a true classic detective story set in Ireland. I loved every minute of this novel, highly recommended.
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This is an extremely engrossing murder mystery, set in 1950s Ireland.  The story has a very Agatha Christie-esque  feeling, beginning with a body in the library of a country house.  Wonderful old fashioned storytelling with an very atmospheric wintry setting and some fantastic characters.  Recommended reading.
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A murder takes place in a country house with the parish priest as the victim is the stuff of classic detective fiction. Everyone is a suspect and the victim had many enemies. The Book excels with the period detail, and the main protagonists St John Strafford as he is a mass of contradictions. The supporting cast are all fleshed out perfectly and the ending is very satisfying.
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Snow is an intelligent literary murder mystery. It confounds expectations: it’s not a modern thriller with lots of plot twists, but although set in a similar 1940s period with a body in a library, it is not a cosy crime novel (Agatha Christie is referenced on more than one occasion). 
As soon as the priest body is revealed without its genitals, we know we are in a territory that Dame Agatha would have fainted at. 
Whereas Christie’s characters are simply one dimensional and often stereotypical, Banville bases his novel all around character.
He uses the story to explore the self-perpetuating prevalence of child abuse and paedophilia in the catholic priesthood in Ireland. It’s a wonder that more priests weren’t murdered as it was the only way of stopping them - the church denying any liability and simply moving the priest elsewhere. Banville plays an even hand with all the characters and despite the fact Father Tom is dead and doesn’t require any exploration, the author still explores his point of view and motivations. 
By the time we drift to the answers at the end, it is satisfying and logical as nothing feels out of character.
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John Banville is much more famous for literary fiction than mysteries. It shows in Snow. 

The plot reads like a too-easy-to-solve Agatha Christie. A priest is murdered in a down-at-its-heels country manor house during a snowstorm with no signs of forced entry.

However, the setting in 1950s Ireland with the sharp divisions between its Catholic and Protestant inhabitants is extremely effective. You feel like you are really living there. The snowy atmosphere and the oppression of the time almost feel like characters within the novel. And the writing style itself is lush.

Unfortunately, the mystery is much too easy to solve. Here, you try it with just a few clues from the beginning of the book: 1957, Ireland, Catholic priest murdered with his “tackle” (genitals) removed, and daughter of the house calling said priest “like a Peeping Tom”.

Overall, literary fiction fans will enjoy this well-written peep into the past. But for mystery fans like me, Snow only receives 3 stars.

Thanks to Faber & Faber Ltd and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
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