As we prepare for our own blanket of snow to descend upon our landscape, I greatly enjoyed reading Snow by John Banville, a new mystery by a Booker Prize-winner author set in 1950s Ireland during a blizzard at Christmastime. It’s set up as a classic country manor house mystery, opening with the murder of a Catholic priest in the library. Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is called in from Dublin to investigate.
Strafford proves to be a downtrodden but amiable companion through the novel. He comes from the minority Protestant upper class, as does the family who owns Ballyglass House where the murder has taken place, and he has rejected the gentry for detective work. Meaning he understands both worlds, but doesn’t fit in in either place. The residents of Ballyglass House include the tony patriarch, a mentally ill second wife, two rebellious teenage children home for the holidays, a semi-feral boy who keeps the horses, and a brusque housekeeper. They make for a small and curious suspect pool.
The story proceeds not at a breakneck pace, but with the muted tone of its landscape. The case produces mostly dead ends for Strafford until the pieces finally fit together in the end. The pleasure is in the eccentric characters and the finely tuned descriptions of the Irish countryside newly decorated with snow. It is in the inspection of Ireland’s past. What the reader comes to learn about the family and the priest and the detective may not feel like a surprise, but it does feel necessary.
It’s a book for early nights and warm blankets. Every time Strafford gets on the road to pursue a new clue or to return to his inn for the night, an accident felt imminent on the treacherous roads. Before our own streets begin to feel the same, stock up on your reading—and put Snow at the top of the pile.