Published by Faber Books, 2020, 352 pages.
“‘The body is in the library,’ Colonel Osborne said. ‘Come this way.’”
This book begins like a traditional English whodunit: with a body in the library in a country house. It’s a cliché—except that John Banville doesn’t do clichés. He uses a murder mystery to paint a portrait of Ireland in the late 50s: the power of the Catholic church, and the societal and religious divides.
In the winter of 1957, the mutilated body of Father Lawless is discovered in the home of the Osbornes, a landowning Protestant family. Given the way he was mutilated, it is clear why he was killed. Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is sent to investigate, partly because he, like the Osbornes, is Protestant and from a similar social background. As his superior says, “You speak their lingo, they’ll talk to you.”
Father Lawless was a friend of the family and spent a lot of time there. Too much time with his “fancy friends”, thought his sister and some in the village, hunting and moving in so-called high society when he should have been attending to his parishioners.
The Catholic church steps in, trying to limit the damage, worrying about the negative publicity if it came out that a priest was not only murdered but mutilated. Strafford disagrees, thinking the public have a right to know. He is summoned for an audience with the Archbishop of Dublin, who tries to warn him off.
As Strafford tries to piece together what happened, he gets the feeling that he is on a stage: everyone seems to be playing a part. There is Osborne, the bluff landowner; his second wife, Sylvia; his children, Dominic and Lettie; the housekeeper, Mrs. Duffy, and Fonsey, the odd-job man.
The Inspector makes no headway. A man was killed and mutilated but no one heard a thing: they all claimed to be sound asleep. Osborne’s wife, who found the body, is a puzzle. When Strafford speaks to her on the morning of the murder, she comes across as a frail creature, but when she invites him to join her for tea in her little parlour, she is dressed to the nines, flirting with Strafford and playing hostess. Her parlour has “a preponderance of chintz and faded silk” and miniature china figures “got up in capes and crinolines and knee breeches and cocked hats.” It’s slightly mad, and Strafford feels like he has stepped into the Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland.
But bit by bit, the pieces come together. There is an interlude towards the end, where the priest has his say. It’s a little jarring, coming in suddenly. I found it disturbing: the chapter takes you into the mind of a predator. It isn’t for nothing that John Banville has named this man Lawless.
Strafford is an outsider in the police force, which is largely Catholic. The Osbornes are part of a small group of Protestants, who are derisively called Horse Protestants. They cling on to their estates, trying to live as they did before independence. But their class is fading, and their houses are falling into decay. Although Strafford grew up in a similar house to the Osbornes’, he is out of place there. He is the kind of person who would be out of place anywhere, which makes him interesting because it gives him an outsider’s perspective.
Banville is a brilliant writer—I’ve read his novels before but never his crime novels, which until now he wrote under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. He has a way of bringing people and places to life: you can feel the snow and the cold in the draughty manor. Here is Fonsey brought alive in a few words: “[D]espite his shambling gait and hulking frame…he was deceptively alert, with even a glint of cunning. He was a creature in hiding, hoping the hounds might eventually pass by and go in search of likelier game.”
I love Banville’s books and am looking forward to more of his crime novels.
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