By John Banville
It’s nearly Christmas and snowing when Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is called from Dublin to a country house to investigate a murder.
The investigation should have fallen to Garda Sgt. Radford. He’s at home with flu — or a hangover; his son drowned not too long ago.
But there’s another reason Dublin wants Strafford on the job: the victim was a Catholic priest, Father Tom Lawless. Not only was his throat cut, he was castrated.
Archbishop McQuaid wants the matter handled quickly, and quietly. Strafford’s boss, Detective Chief Superintendent Hackett, wants as little trouble with the archbishop as possible.
But Strafford is a a crime-solver, not a politician. Even a visit to the archbishop’s chilly weekend mansion isn’t enough to scare the Protestant cop into a cover-up.
When Strafford arrives at the Osbornes’ estate, Ballyglass House, the good father is fully dressed and carefully laid out, a candle at his head. The blood stains have been well scrubbed out.
“From the start there had been something odd about this case, in a way he had never encountered before. Something had been niggling at him, and suddenly now he realized what it was. No one was crying.”
The class- and status-conscious Osbornes are giving away no clues. Sylvia, the second Mrs. Osborne, who discovered the body as she wandered the house sleepless, is kept well-sedated by the family doctor.
The arrogant son Dominic can barely spare time from his medical texts to answer Strafford’s questions. Strafford observes, “In Dominic Osborne, something, some undefinable finish, would always be lacking. There would always be something amiss.” His sister, 17-year-old Lettie Osborne, is full of flirtation and innuendo but no desire to reveal anything useful.
The one conveniently obvious suspect is Fonsey, “a hulking boy in rubber boots and a leather jacket . . . doing a sort of clumsy goose step in the deep snow.” Fonsey was raised in a Catholic orphanage and later a reform school. Gifted with horses, he cared for the priest’s horse.
But Jeremiah Reck, the local butcher who hired Fonsey as an apprentice, tells Strafford the boy couldn’t possibly be a murderer; he didn’t have the stomach for killing animals and had to be let go from the butcher’s.
And throughout everything, the snow falls, a blanket of white, hiding all. Cold, slippery and treacherous.
This is no ordinary “who dunnit” murder mystery. Strafford’s investigation comes to an end when the strongest suspect, someone who was almost certainly guilty of murdering Strafford’s deputy, washes up dead on the beach. But it’s an uneasy resolution; not all the pieces fit.
Author John Banville is a Booker Prize-winning writer much more concerned with how the victim and his murder itself affect the characters. It’s not until the chilling epilogue that readers begin to understand what Strafford always suspected but couldn’t prove. Multiple crimes lead up to Father Lawless’s death and mutilation — and several people had passionate reasons to kill him.
When Strafford runs into Lettie Osborne by chance some 10 years later, he learns for certain that not only have some of the guilty gone unpunished, another cycle of abuse and punishment seems about to begin.
About the Author: John Banville (1945 – )
John Banville is a much-honored Irish novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and adapter of dramas. Among his many awards are the 2005 Booker Prize for THE SEA, the 1976 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 2011 Franz Kafka Prize. He is considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007 and made a Cavaliere of the Ordine della Stella d’Italia in 2017.
He published his first novel, NIGHTSPAWN, in 1971. His work is noted for its brilliant literary style. Banville is compared to Proust and Nabokov. He says that W. B. Yeats and Henry James are the actual biggest influences on his work.
He publishes crime novels under the name Benjamin Black. His first crime novel was CHRISTINE FALLS (2006)Most of his crime novels feature Quirke, an Irish pathologist based in Dublin.
Banville was born in Wexford, the youngest of three siblings. His older brother Vincent is a novelist and his sister Anne Veronica has written a children’s novel and a memoir of growing up in Wexford.