On one level, in this book John Banville offers a sly wink at iconic British crime fiction. This story takes place in a small village at an aristocratic manor house, with all the suspects already at the scene of the crime, committed, of course, in the library with a dagger. The detective only has to deduce which one is guilty, which is accomplished simultaneously with the gradual revelation of the sordid secrets of the suspects.
On another level, this is historical fiction, set in the winter of 1957 Ireland, when tensions were simmering between Protestants and Catholics, and expectations of class, power, and religion colored every interaction between the two groups, even down to preference in whisky. (The Catholics, apparently, prefer Jameson’s to Bushmills, and consider it a pointed insult to be offered whisky not in keeping with their heritage, “another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on.”)
Police Detective Inspector St John Strafford has been sent in a serious snowstorm from Dublin to Ballyglass House in the County of Wexford. This run-down manor was owned by the Protestant Colonel Osborne, so it was thought that the Protestant Strafford might handle the situation more diplomatically than Catholics in the force. At Ballyglass, a priest who was a guest of the house, Father Tom Lawless, has just been murdered and mutilated. Readers can guess why a priest might have been castrated, and the author eventually supplies us with the gruesome justifications for the crime. But more than one person associated with the manor has a motive, and Strafford must figure out which one it is.
The main characters are odd, and all seem, in Strafford’s eyes, to be playing some sort of roles.
Osborne was “very much a type,” Strafford noticed:
“’Odd,’ he thought, ‘that a man should take the time to dress and groom himself so punctiliously while the body of a stabbed and castrated priest lay on the floor in his library. But of course the forms must be observed, whatever the circumstances – afternoon tea had been taken every day, often outdoors, during the siege of Khartoum.’”
Osborne’s young (second) wife Sylvia, is generally considered to be crazy, and is administered sedatives every day by a doctor.
Osborne has two children from his first wife who are also at home, as it is Christmastime. Lettie is seventeen, cruel, sarcastic, and full of herself, and Dominic is a morose medical student at Trinity College in Dublin.
In addition, there are a few staff members around, and a few locals who have occasion to stop by frequently at the manor.
Strafford not only had to root through the skeletons hiding in the house. He had to do so within the confines of reality in 1957 Ireland, which meant that:
“The Catholic Church – the powers that be, in other words – would shoulder its way in and take over. There would be a cover-up, some plausible lie would be peddled to the public. The only question was how deeply the facts could be buried.”
Indeed, Strafford was summoned for a parley of sorts with the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, to discuss his handling of the case, and to receive not so subtle threats about what he did or did not reveal to the press.
Strafford finally closes in on what happened, but only as near as he can get to it by the actors all so wedded to their roles and to their secrets.
Evaluation: This crime story is cleverly told, but the specifics were so abhorrent to me I could hardly bear to read it. This was certainly not the author’s fault, as reality is sometimes just that way, but I can’t really say I enjoyed it.
Published by Faber & Faber, 2020