Who Chopped Off the Priest’s Nob?

By Randy RosenthalDecember 25, 2020

Who Chopped Off the Priest’s Nob?

Snow by John Banville

MOST PEOPLE AREN’T AWARE that John Banville is the best writer alive. The 74-year-old Irish Booker Prize winner is perhaps best known for his early novels Doctor Copernicus and Kepler, but his later books — such as The Sea, Ancient Light, and The Infinities — contain passages so exquisite they demand to be read a dozen times. Even then, the sentences seem impossible. How did he do that? I wonder. They’re transcendent. Little miracles of language.

Even Banville forgets how good he is. A case in point: a fan of Georges Simenon and Raymond Chandler, Banville began publishing his own crime novels in 2007 under the pen name Benjamin Black. The pseudonym was simply an excuse to shrug off his perfectionism. He thought of his Banville books as art, but of his Black books as craft, like building a table. A painting is never finished, but a table can be good enough to serve a function. A Banville book took him about three or four years, while a Black book took about five or six months. Recently, however, he was rereading some of his Benjamin Black books and was surprised to discover they weren’t so bad. They were even pretty good. So he decided to kill off Black and write a new detective series under his own name. The first is Snow, which is set in the winter of 1957.

In many of his books, Banville likes to stick it to the Catholic Church, and here in Snow he does so literally: the story opens with a priest being stabbed in the neck. A few pages later, we find out he’s also been “gelded.” That is, castrated. His “tackle, balls and all,” lopped off and not to be found. To make matters worse, it’s a couple of days before Christmas. And we soon learn that the priest, Father Tom Lawless, was beloved. Very popular with the people — especially the lads. Wink. Yes, Banville comes out swinging.

Yet after the bold opening, the story quickly settles into archetype. The murder takes place in an old mansion in Ballyglass, Wexford — the county in the Southeast of Ireland where Banville is from. And Ballyglass House, the hereditary seat of the Osborne family, is a veritable House of Usher, with its jagged roof slates, cracked walls, mullioned windows with decaying frames, and cold rooms with shabby rugs. The priest was even murdered in the library, and the man of the house is a colonel. Anyone for Clue?

Detective Inspector St. John Strafford must be, whether he fits the part or not. And the fact is, he doesn’t. Let’s begin with his name. St. John? It’s pronounced Sinjun, but even so. How odd. Odder still, characters mispronounce his last name about a dozen times throughout the book. They call him Stafford, causing the 35-year-old policeman to correct them. Strafford, with an r. What is the meaning of this redundancy? It seems Banville wants to create an anti-detective, the opposite of a smooth-sounding Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Unlike those sleuths, Strafford doesn’t drink. Or at least he doesn’t like it, as he never “managed to accustom himself to the taste either of fermented grain or rotted grapes.” He doesn’t even smoke. And he isn’t that sharp.

These details are deliberate, as they distinguish Strafford as an outsider, an other in Catholic Ireland. For example, Sinjun is how aristocrats pronounce St. John, so his name belies his class. And he, like the Osbornes, is a Prod — that is, a Protestant. In the ’50s, Protestants made up only five percent of the then-young Irish Republic. And of that small number, the fraction of those who managed to retain their estates and privileged positions — “Horse Protestants,” as Irish Catholics referred to them with derision — all knew each other. Strafford comes from such a family himself, and his colleagues at the Garda hold his religion and class against him. Hardly a chapter goes by where Banville doesn’t remind us of this cultural division. Even the choice of whiskey signifies which side of the Irish divide you’re on; Protestants prefer Bushmills, while Catholics fancy Jameson.

Despite the Irishness of Banville’s murder story, it nevertheless appears generic. So much so that in the second chapter, someone says that “Poirot himself appears in the scene.” This reference to Agatha Christie’s famous detective is one of many allusions Banville makes to classic literature, myths, and fairy tales. (He even references his own work, with mentions of the new State Pathologist in Dublin, Dr. Quirke, the protagonist of most Benjamin Black books.) In addition to Poirot, characters refer to Centaurs, Shakespeare’s Caliban, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Chaucer’s Priest’s Tale, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. These are handed over, but Banville makes us work for a few, leaving the quotations unassigned. “Snow is general all over Ireland,” Strafford reports to his boss, Chief Superintendent Hackett, who doesn’t get the allusion to James Joyce’s “The Dead.” By making his new creation a literary detective, Banville maintains an implicit self-conscious commentary on his handling of the genre.

Sometimes this self-awareness manifests in explicit insights into the role of the detective figure itself. At one point, for instance, the Osborne son, 20-year-old Dominic, says Strafford’s job must be like assembling an intricate jigsaw puzzle, putting the pieces together and looking for a pattern. And on cue, Strafford agrees, adding,

The trouble is, the pieces don’t stay still. They tend to move around, making patterns of their own, or what seem to be patterns. Everything is deceptive. You think you have the measure of things, and then it all shifts. In fact, it’s more like watching a play, one in which the plot keeps changing.

With such heavy-handedness, Snow is decidedly more Black than Banville. But what moves around is the pattern, not the pieces. Indeed, the characters are like role actors in a play. Fiftyish Colonel Osborne playing the part of country squire keeping up appearances. His pretentious son Dominic, in twill, tweed, and brown brogues, coming of age into his own. The precocious 17-year-old daughter Lettie, wearing jodhpurs and riding jacket even though she doesn’t ride, and flirting with Strafford. Osborne’s young and beautiful second wife, the mentally imbalanced Sylvia, the actual object of Strafford’s desires — though he also fancies the 19-year-old barmaid Peggy, once he gets away to the Sheaf of Barley Inn, his only respite from the Ballyglass house. There’s Sylvia’s prescription-happy and loose-lipped doctor; an apple-cheeked maid named Mrs. Duffy who serves steak-and-kidney pudding; and a feral young man, Fonsey, who maintains the horses and lives in a tinker caravan down the hill. We’re thrown red herrings in every chapter, as Banville provides each character a motivation to do Father Tom in, leading us to think they all could have done it, Murder on the Orient Express style.

On top of everything, the house is supposedly haunted. Banville plays up these eerie elements, making Snow much like a Hitchcock film — it impeccably blends the uncanny into a murder mystery, and is punctuated by bits of humor, served black, like St. John Strafford takes his tea.

On the surface, it all seems so classic, so done before. Yet upon closer inspection, Banville puts his own spin on it by stamping his style in the telling of the story, as if saying, Damnit, I am Banville after all. After Father Tom Lawless is stabbed, for example, the last thing he sees is “a faint flare of light that yellowed the darkness briefly.” I’ve never thought of darkness as capable of being yellowed. But this is what Banville does with words — he transforms our perception of reality, from what we thought it was into how it could be.

In fact, reading Banville is like watching Lionel Messi or LeBron James — keep looking, and you’ll soon see something amazing. Even his casual descriptions are peerless. For instance, early on, Strafford peers out the window and sees the “sky was a mass of swollen, bruise-colored cloud hanging so low it seemed it must be resting on the roof.” When Strafford meets Fonsey, the detective observes the lad is missing a front tooth, and “[t]he rectangular gap looked very stark and black, like the mouth of a deep cave seen from the far side of a valley.” And when Strafford sets out to a new crime scene, Banville brilliantly paints the landscape:

It was flat and featureless terrain, with frozen bogholes and ponds fringed with stands of dried sedge. Curlews rose out of the heather, sending up their desolate cry. The sun seemed impossibly shrunken, a flat gold coin nailed to the sky low down at the side. The winter day had begun already to decline.

The way the words line up, the way the sounds unfold, these sentences are pure joy to read; I can run my eyes over them repeatedly, basking in their cadence. Also, I now can’t help but sometimes see the sun as a flat gold coin nailed to the sky. It’s like his words wave a magic wand over the mundane and remind us that each existing thing is, in fact, a miracle. As Banville marvels through Strafford, “How strange a thing it was to be here, animate and conscious, on this ball of mud and brine as it whirled through the illimitable depths of space.”

Despite the numerous literary gems found in Chandler and Simenon, a crime novel rests on its plot, not its prose. And while reading Snow, I’ll admit I was disappointed with its plot. No spoiler here, but the motivation behind Father Tom’s murder and the critique of the Catholic Church revolves around pedophilia. The priest’s abuse of boys, the Church’s power to cover it up. The cycles of abuse through generations, from father to son, from priests to the abused, who in turn become abusers themselves. This crime, of course, is serious business, as sinister now as it was then. At one point, after Strafford meets Father Tom’s sister, he reflects on evil, wondering if he had just encountered it: “He had never believed in evil as a force in itself — there was no evil, he always insisted, there were only evil deeds. But was he mistaken?” Yes, because more than murder, an act of pedophilia is evil. After all, murder can have some justification to it. An eye for an eye and all that. Indeed, people say that Father Tom got what he deserved. But no child deserves to be sexually abused. There’s never a justification for it. And so if there is evil, then the rape of a child is it.

Even so — pedophile priests and the Church trying to cover up scandal? I figured Banville above such clichés. Moreover, for a crime novel, the puzzle seemed too easily solved. In retrospect, the red herrings prove just that. Feints and jukes. From about a quarter of the way through, it was obvious who murdered Father Tom Lawless. Right up near to the end, I thought the story was too simple. Fortunately, Banville includes a coda that indicates we were wrong all along.


Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, and many other publications.

LARB Contributor

Randy Rosenthal is the co-founding editor of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Journal of Books, Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Daily Beast, and The Brooklyn Rail. He is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he studied religion and literature, and currently teaches writing classes at Harvard.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!