In an essay on his “addiction” to detective stories, the poet W.H. Auden found theological meaning in his love of whodunits: “The phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.” To read Agatha Christie, Auden suggests, is to move from doubt (was it the cook? The judge?) to certainty, from unease to comfort. “I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin,” he writes. By this light, reading detective stories offers the fallen reader the grace of restoration.
Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville knows his detective fiction, having written 10 such books under the pen name Benjamin Black. And, whether writing as Black or Banville, he knows sin and fallenness. The man is Irish, after all, and his work previously has taken on grief (“The Sea”), murder (“Athena”), and marital unhappiness (“Mrs. Osmond”), all set in fictional worlds far from innocent. Banville’s latest, “Snow,” is his first detective novel to be published under his own name, and it’s an interesting, if not entirely successful, departure from form.
The Benjamin Black novels were very much in the tradition of Raymond Chandler: decidedly urban, decidedly dark, less purging evil than dwelling in its fug. “Snow,” set in the winter of 1957, reads more like Agatha Christie — indeed, self-consciously so. “The body is in the library,” the first sentence of the first chapter archly reads. Pages later, the head of the forensics team exclaims, “Jesus Christ, will you look at this place? … Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.”
The body in the library, which isn’t just dead but also has been castrated, belongs to a priest; the place is a “great gaunt mansion” in County Wexford belonging to Colonel Osborne. The detective inspector tasked with finding out how the one came to be in the other is St. John Strafford — a Protestant in a country of Catholics, a man estranged from his privileged upbringing whose estrangement allows him to see things others can’t. (Funny how that always seems to work for fictional detectives.) As Banville writes, Strafford “didn’t really know himself, and didn’t care to. … His strongest drive was curiosity, the simple wish to know, to be let in on what was hidden from others.”
A general if imperfect critical divide between literary and detective fiction might go something like this: literary fiction is interested in characters coming to know themselves; detective fiction is interested in characters coming to know what happened to others. So it’s striking that “Snow,” published under Banville’s literary rather than genre name, is so uninterested in psychology and so consumed with whodunit.
Because the murder happened on an aristocratic estate, because there doesn’t appear to have been a break-in, because Wexford is so small, there are a limited number of suspects: the Colonel, whose first wife died under suspicious circumstances; Fonsey, the young, “feral” gamekeeper who knows how to gut an animal (and so, presumably, how to unman a priest); Lettie, the Colonel’s slightly-off daughter; Sylvia, the Colonel’s totally-off second wife.
As the plot unfolds, Banville delights in reminding us that this is genre fiction, that he knows his tropes and that his characters do, too. The cook, “like everybody else Strafford had so far encountered at Ballyglass House, had the look of a character actor hired that morning, and fitted the part altogether too convincingly.” In fact, Strafford thinks, “Everyone seemed to be in costume, seemed to be dressed for a part. They were like a cast of actors milling about in the wings, waiting to go on.” At one point, Strafford reflects on his decision to enter the police force: “He would learn things that other people didn’t know, things of life and, far more significantly, things of death, and dying.” What he ends up learning is less the meaning of death than how to recognize when you’re in a detective novel.
These authorial winks are nice. (Beside the allusions to Christie, Banville also doffs his cap to Joyce, with the novel’s countryside-blanketing snow recalling “The Dead.”) So too are Banville’s little sensory observations: “Father Tom had been a big man, with burly shoulders and a barrel chest. There were woolly clumps of hair in his ears — priests, being wifeless, tended to neglect that kind of thing.”
Not so satisfying is the plot resolution: The priest was killed and castrated for exactly the reason you think a priest would be killed and castrated. Odd for a writer of Banville’s formal accomplishment, there are also real structural issues. “Snow” is told in close third-person, from Strafford’s perspective, but for two jarring exceptions: one totally inexplicable early chapter from Lettie’s point of view, which ratchets up the sex to no real end; and another, reductively explicable late chapter from the priest’s point of view. You see the denouement coming from a mile away; it also seems weirdly rushed.
Whatever resolution “Snow” offers will be short-lived. The particular evils sketched here — priestly abuse; tensions between Protestants and Catholics — aren’t going away. Banville is scheduled to publish another Strafford novel. Safe to say, the detective won’t find himself in Eden.
By John Banville
Hanover Square Press, 304 pp., $27.99
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”