I rarely buy crime or thriller books to read ‘for pleasure’, as opposed to reading ‘for work’. I used to read, many years ago, crime books by P.D.James, Robert Goddard, and others. I’m not sure quite why I abandoned the genre but perhaps it was because many of my ‘work’ books – books I’m sent to edit or proofread – are this genre. I actually quite like working on them, have even enthusiastically requested that the author’s next book comes to me, but my ‘pleasure’ books, the ones I buy to read when work is slow and I have time, or am on holiday, have taken a different direction.
So what attracted me to read this crime story by John Banville? Partly, I think, because my last piece of editing work was a dystopian, post-pandemic novel which, rather than taking me into a world of escapism, took me instead into a worst-case scenario future. Perhaps there was something to be said for those crime stories after all – you know where you stand with a bit of old-fashioned blood and gore, a wily detective and a host of suspects. I also caught sight of a good review and was intrigued to read a John Banville book of this kind – so it was ordered.
I read John Banville’s Booker Prize winning novel The Sea when it was published to much acclaim back in 2005. Although I remember little of it (I’m not good at long-term memory when it comes to the details of books read years ago and am always in awe of those who are), I do clearly remember I thought it was brilliant. I know that Banville turned to writing crime under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, so it was interesting that he’d abandoned the well-used pseudonym for his real name with this book, despite it having the same setting and characters (though a change in central character). What was this fusion of genre writing with literary writing?
The fusion is a combination of an old-fashioned country house mystery – à la Agatha Christie – and a beautifully written story.
Set in 1957 in Ireland, Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called from Dublin to investigate a murder at Ballyglass House in County Wexford. A body has been found in the library (think Cluedo!), and a cast of eccentric characters appear, all with some possible motive for killing the man. But the man isn’t just any man, he is a priest, and thus the power of the Catholic Church will play an important role in determining the outcome of Strafford’s investigation.
So, a country house, a body and a host of suspects. But Strafford in no Hercule Poirot. Strafford is a man with his own demons; insecure; uncertain he’s cut out for police work; a loner who stands apart from the world. Even his inability to tolerate alcohol means he’s unable to socialise and be accepted as some kind of ‘ordinary’ man – it’s merely an embarrassing burden for him to bear. And there is the mystery of his aristocratic background and why he chose this police route rather than become a barrister as his father hoped. As we witness his agonised internal brooding, his surprising, even shocking susceptibility to a pretty woman, he seems in many ways very real, unlike the other characters in the book.
At Ballyglass House we find a stiff, privileged colonel; his drugged-up, much younger second wife who found the body but seems incapable of giving any coherent information; an unruly daughter; a hostile, arrogant son. Into the mix are thrown the local publican who quotes Shakespeare and Chaucer in ordinary conversation; a doctor who feels a need to visit the frail wife every day; the local police chief who drowns his grief at his son’s recent suicide in alcohol; and the stable boy, Fonsey, whose sad history and rough appearance hide more intelligence than is generally recognised. Which of them would kill Father Tom Lawless? The apparently well-liked and popular priest. Well, of course ‘Lawless’ gives us a clue …The hypocrisy, power and corruption of the Catholic Church at this time is laid bare.
The crime aspect of Banville’s story follows the usual conventions. Strafford says a few times that it feels as if he is watching a play and all the suspects are characters in it. And in this sense, we see it too as a kind of play; unreal and full of clichéd characters. And the clues to what lies behind the murder are laid bare a little too early for the committed crime reader to play at sleuth. But it is Banville’s glorious writing, the vivid descriptions of the snow-covered land, his authentic creation of 1950s Ireland, his acute understanding of his characters, that makes this an entertaining and worthwhile read: ‘It had snowed continuously for two days, and this morning everything appeared to stand in hushed amazement before the spectacle of such expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides.’ It was with a kind of hushed amazement that I reread many sentences to enjoy their beauty again.