Snow by John Banville

Booker Prize winner John Banville has always written crime fiction under the name of Benjamin Black, in a style very different to his other, stylistically more difficult, novels. Snow, however, is a literary murder mystery published under his own name, and is perhaps an effort to bring his two personas together.

It's set in 1950s rural Ireland in the lead-up to a bitterly cold Christmas. The mutilated body of Father Tom, a Catholic priest, has been found at Ballyglass House, home of the Osborne family.

The Osbornes are among the last of Ireland's Protestant gentry - horsey, hunting types - and there are immediate parallels between them and the police detective sent to investigate. St John Strafford also comes from a large, increasingly empty Protestant house and immediately realises that Colonel Osborne is 'very much a type' and a type he is 'thoroughly familiar with'. Colonel Osborne is a dying breed of snob, dismissive of those in Ireland who fought 'for their so-called freedoms' and reluctant to allow Strafford's working class sergeant to join Strafford at the dinner table. His wife is physically and mentally ill, heavily medicated with morphine by the creepily jovial family doctor. Osborne's unhappy teenage daughter Lettie is self-consciously outrageous and revels in making Strafford uncomfortable, while his son Dominic, a medical student, is hostile and sarcastic. As a family, they're part of a dying breed, and as their influence shrinks, so does their home environment: most of the house is unused and deteriorating and their staff has been reduced to a housekeeper and Fonsey, a young man with possible learning difficulties who lives in a caravan and looks after the stables. 

In some ways Snow has all the trappings of a traditional Golden Age murder mystery - a country house murder, a victim many people had reason to dislike and even, I'm sure deliberately included as a nod to the genre, a body in the library. Read purely as a whodunnit, the plot would be pretty thin; it's fine, but nothing especially revelatory. Neither is this a story in which the why is more important than the who - the nature of the mutilation of Father Tom's body makes the killer's motive obvious, assuming you're aware of the most shameful scandals in the Catholic Church's recent history.

Not that this matters a great deal, because the mystery isn't really the point of the book; rather it's a vehicle for looking at Ireland's social history and the tensions within it, as well as the power of the Catholic Church and the gradual breaking down of the class system. I do, however, think Snow would have been slightly elevated by a smarter mystery plot alongside its considerable literary merits. It shouldn't have to be an either/or situation.

Strafford is a melancholic figure, an outsider. As well as being Protestant, he has nowhere to be on Christmas Day. He doesn't really drink and is slightly embarrassed about it, and his engagement has broken down. And it's not just Strafford: there's something either odd or tragic about almost every character and the book is full of awkward, even slightly disturbing interactions - there's a scene with Lettie and Fonsey in the latter's squalid caravan that would make any reader cringe. Sometimes there's black comedy too, and this is well-executed, but it certainly plays second (or third or fourth) fiddle to the general air of loneliness and decay.

Snow is almost uncomfortably atmospheric, the kind of the book that makes you feel as if you've been picked up and dropped into its world. That world isn't always a pleasant place to be (there is barely a single location that I could imagine not smelling of damp) but it's brilliantly evoked. The snow that brings a white Christmas to County Wexford isn't picturesque and magical; it's claustrophobic and threatening. Banville also has a gift for placing us in the heads of his characters - the reader's relationship with Strafford is a unflinchingly intimate one that spares none of his vulnerabilities and anxieties. (On this note, though, a word of warning: the book also includes a fairly lengthy section of first-person narrative by the murder victim which describes in detail some disturbing behaviours and attitudes, and some might find this particularly difficult to read about.) 

As the title suggests, Snow is very much a winter read, and I must say I'm glad I read it in December rather than January. Apart from December coinciding with the time at which the events of the novel take place, reading this in the bleakness of January might have been a bit much. However, it's an excellent, perceptive novel by a master of language and I'll be interested to see whether Banville writes more like this under his own name rather than as his crime-writing alter ego.