“Who could know all that goes on in an old house late at night?”
Father Tom, a parish priest has been found dead in Ballyglass House, the family home of the aristocratic, secretive Osborne family. The Catholic Church rules Ireland with an iron fist, and almost 90% of the Wexford area families are Catholic. The death, which is obviously a murder (he was stabbed then castrated) is sloughed off as an ‘accident‘ by the Catholic higher ups – it is 1957 and God forbid there should be any scandal.
The Protestant Detective Inspector St. John Strafford (Sinjun) is tasked with the murder investigation. Strafford is used to the type of house he now finds himself in. He too came from upper class beginnings. Thwarted at every turn by the aristocratic family in whose home the murder took place, as well as his own police superiors who are under the pressure of the Catholic Church, Strafford is met with obstacle after obstacle.Suspects are numerous in the aristocratic manor where Father Tom was murdered and the Osborne family hold many secrets. The crime scene itself was thoroughly compromised, as the house’s maid ‘tidied up‘ the priest’s body and scrubbed up the blood before the police arrived on the scene. Also, Strafford’s investigations are hampered by the winter weather and his undependable old car.
“As a countryman, Strafford had a healthy respect for Mother Nature, but he had never been able quite to love her.”
Remember, this was a time before cell phones, and even landlines were scarce and not very private.
With so much working against him, the reader roots for this solitary, discontented, and introspective policeman, especially after Sergeant Jenkins, his second in command, goes missing…
“Life is strange, Strafford thought, but a policeman’s life is stranger than most”.The book includes an ‘Interlude’ at about the 80% mark. In this ‘interlude’ chapter we meet the deceased priest, Father Tom, some ten years previously when he fell from grace from the church and was banished to work at the remotely situated Carricklea Reformatory and Industrial School.
Here was me thinking this was my first Banville novel when actually I HAVE read his work before, only under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black (Quirke series).
The first thing that struck me while reading this novel was the absolutely beautiful descriptive prose. His writing elevates this novel from being a run of the mill detective story to something… more. And when I say detective story, I mean just that. This is an old-fashioned detective story with the feel of the classic works of Christie, Sayers and the like.
The characters were almost characterizations, though it seemed to work here. The manor house with the eccentric inhabitants sounded as though they had just jumped off a ‘Clue’ board game. The body was even found in the ‘library’.
The only standout was the main character himself, whom I found to be quite unique. He was a Protestant in Catholic Ireland. He was born with a silver spoon, though over the years this has been dreadfully tarnished… He lost his mother at a very young age and was sent to boarding school by his father. He was a loner who eschewed alcohol in a country known for its drinkers. His decision to join the Gardaí is a mystery to his family and yes… even to himself. Solitary, without friend nor even foe, he presents as a detective who doesn’t look like one, working in a profession that he feels himself unsuited for.
The time period set the prevailing look and feel of this novel. It is 1957 and Catholic Protestant relations are strained to say the least. Also, this was a time of great sexual inequality and social class stratification. The upper class held certain privileges that the ordinary man wouldn’t dream of. The Catholic Church is a law unto itself.
I was not a bit surprised when the murderer was revealed, even the twist at the end was somehow not wholly unexpected. Still… it was a fine novel.
Highly recommended to those readers who prefer a slow paced, literary mystery. I for one, thoroughly enjoyed the read.
This review was written voluntarily and my rating was in no way influenced by the fact that I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Hanover Square Press via Edelweiss.
ISBN: 9781335230003 ASIN: B083Y3JK4W 304 pages
William John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945, the youngest of three siblings. He was educated at Christian Brothers schools and St Peter’s College, Wexford. After college John worked as a clerk for Ireland’s national airline, Aer Lingus, before joining The Irish Press as a sub-editor in 1969. Continuing with journalism for over thirty years, John was Literary Editor at The Irish Times from 1988 to 1999.
John’s first book, Long Lankin, a collection of short stories and a novella, was published in 1970. His first novel, Nightspawn, came out in 1971. In 2012, an anthology comprising extracts from John’s fifteen novels to date, together with selections drawn from his dramatic works and various reviews, was published under the title, Possessed of a Past: A John Banville Reader.
John has won myriad literary awards over the years including the Man Booker Prize for The Sea. In 2011 he was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize. Last year, John was awarded the Irish Pen Award for Outstanding Achievement in Irish Literature.
Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, John has published several crime novels in the Quirke series. The first three have been adapted by Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson for the BBC, and will be broadcast later this autumn, starring Gabriel Byrne in the title role.
Visit John Banville‘s official website.