How a Great Crime Writer Came to Imitate Himself

Sophie Bassouls / Sygma; David Levenson / Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

“The appeal of the conventional crime novel,” the Irish writer John Banville once suggested, “is the sense of completion it offers.” Unlike life, bounded by the unremembered and—strictly speaking—unlived experiences of birth and death, “in an Agatha Christie whodunit or a Robert Ludlum thriller, we know with a certainty … that when the murderer is unmasked or the conspiracy foiled, everything will click into place, like a jigsaw puzzle assembling itself before our eyes.” Against this satisfaction, Banville proposed an alternative form of crime novel, one in which “if something can go wrong, it will”; for such stories, “it is the sense of awful and immediate reality that makes them so startling, so unsettling, and so convincing.”

That a crime novel might cater to a wish to touch “reality” has frequently suggested itself to commentators on the genre. For the great Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye, the detective story stemmed from a combination of atavistic desire to identify and destroy a threat to the community, and an “intensification” of literary realism: “the sharpening of attention to details that makes the dullest and most neglected trivia of daily living leap into mysterious and fateful significance.” The thought crops up in the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson’s 2016 study of Raymond Chandler, which Banville reviewed for The New York Review of Books. We now find an echo of it in Banville’s latest novel, Snow, in a detective’s musing on his métier: “The dullest object could, for him, flare into sudden significance, could throb in the sudden awareness of itself. There were clues, and he was their detector.”

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The remark is typical of Banville, who has long specialized in protagonists and a style so self-conscious that it affects even inanimate objects. (“The dullest object” cannot simply be noticed; it must also come to “awareness of itself.”) As such, it might seem particularly appropriate in Snow, billed as “the first of Banville’s crime novels to be published under his own name.” Though the writer has in recent years split himself into the crime novelist “Benjamin Black” and the “literary” novelist John Banville, his best signed work (such as The Book of Evidence, about an aesthete art thief turned murderer, or The Untouchable, a roman à clef about a closeted art historian and Soviet double agent) has long flashed a pulpy streak. His latest novel, for good or ill, exaggerates his self-awareness, to encompass not just characters and objects but also the mechanics of the whodunit.

Consider, in Snow, the reader’s introduction to the crumbling Anglo-Irish family seat of Ballyglass. “The library,” we are told, “had the look of a place that no one had been in for a very long time, and today it wore a put-upon aspect, as though indignant that its solitude should be so suddenly and so rudely violated. The glass-fronted bookcases lining the walls stared before them coldly, and the books stood shoulder to shoulder in an attitude of mute resentment.” What has produced such indignation is, first, a corpse—an elderly Catholic priest, stabbed and castrated (relieved, in fact, of his whole “tackle, balls and all”)—and, now, the police detectives, down from Dublin to investigate. But a second-order knowingness also seems present, as if the books were particularly chagrined at having been pressed into service of so generic a trope. As Banville has one detective mutter to another: “‘It’s a library … It’s an actual fucking library, and there’s a body in it!’”

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Well, yes. Given the artfully posed corpse, snowed-in estate, and limited cast of suspects with plenty of secrets to go around, the reader’s credulity might have been strained had no one remarked on the resonance with touchstones of the genre. (“Jesus Christ, will you look at this place?” another detective exclaims. “Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.” Banville adds, mischievously, that he pronounces it Pwor-rott.) Then again, the novel’s setting does lend itself to a certain staginess. The killing of a priest in Ireland in 1957—Éamon de Valera’s Ireland, officially secular but governed hand in glove with the powerful Catholic Church—can set in motion powerful but unseen levers, which, once sensed, might prompt a detective to wonder whether his task is to investigate at all. As Detective Inspector Strafford, Snow’s protagonist, reflects after receiving yet another muddled set of directives from Dublin: “He knew from the Chief’s tone that the makings of a cover-up were already being put in place, like the props on a stage set … There were others, more determined and far more skilled than he at painting fake scenery and making silent alterations to the plot.”

Readers of the Benjamin Black books will be familiar with this locale: Snow’s County Wexford is contiguous with the Dublin of the earlier series, some of whose characters are variously accounted for. (Detective Inspector Hackett is only a phone call away, while Chief Pathologist Quirke, we are told, is on his honeymoon.) If the new novel presents a strangely neutered state of affairs, this cannot be ascribed solely to the peculiarity of its setting. For that, part of the explanation must lie with Snow’s main detective.

Banville has long specialized in odd ducks, fish out of water: characters who don’t quite fit their surroundings—sometimes (thanks to their author’s underappreciated gift for physical comedy) being literally too large or too small, or both at once. In this, Saint John (pronounced Sin-jun) Strafford is no exception. With just enough distinguishing marks to sketch an image in the reader’s mind (lanky frame, lock of hair that he must continually brush from his face), Strafford is given several others that make him a most unusual detective. Polite to the point of occasional social ineptitude, he provokes laughter in those who encounter him, who invariably forget his name and never fail to remark that he doesn’t “look much like a policeman.” Add to this that he doesn’t drink and is a Protestant, the last of a decaying manorial line, and you have a figure whose relation to his environment is, even by Banville’s standards, tenuous.

A detective series is generally only as good as its detective; as recent scholarship has reminded us, the detective is not merely a character, but also a plot device, one whose mode of locating clues and summoning witnesses determines the way novelistic reality exhibits itself. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, or Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, or Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Strafford doesn’t operate on a basis of rigorous observation and deduction. Lacking the sangfroid of the born questioner, he hardly waits for his interviewees to squirm before softening his attack. (“Will you tell me about him, about your brother?” he asks at one point. “Or tell me about your family, at least—have you other siblings?”) Prone, like Holmes, to meditative trances, his suggest reverie rather than the whirring of mental gears. Instead of drawing his inferences directly from the world, this detective draws the world and its inhabitants into himself, and looks there for answers.

With his impulse toward mental play that stops short of full introspection, Strafford resembles the confessional narrators of The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable. In those more typical Banville novels, the narrator’s unreliability becomes a drama that penetrates to the last slippery detail of metaphor and word choice. (The Infinities, told by the interloping god Hermes, is the exception proving a rule that might go something like this: no omniscience unless that of the trickster, liar, and thief.) Why, then, did Banville choose to write Strafford in the third person? One reason may be expedience: In plot-driven procedurals, the more objective presentation can efficiently move events toward their conclusion, without the confessional’s propensity for shifting dreamingly back and forth in time.

Toward the end of the book, however, a different rationale presents itself: The form ensures that, when a first-person voice is belatedly introduced, it stands out with shocking force. (To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that, in a twist on the traditional policier, Snow’s major confession is not that of the murderer, but that of his victim. This late monologue, which supplies the motive for the crime, is a malignant stew of leering and self-justification—and in this sense marks an advance, albeit a highly unpleasant one, on the technique Banville has long developed.)

What is the reader to make of these late variations, these partial returns to the methods of his most successful novels, but in an exacerbated, frequently parodic mode? Over the past decade, Banville has done frankly as an old writer what all young writers do implicitly: He apprenticed himself to the greats, turning out crime novels inspired by the romans durs of Georges Simenon (the Benjamin Black books) and imitations of Henry James (Mrs Osmond) and Raymond Chandler (The Black-Eyed Blonde); the latter two are brilliant performances evoking the uneasy admiration that attends all virtuosically realized simulacra.

Snow extends this movement—with the curious variation that, in this case, Banville might be said to have apprenticed himself to his own earlier self. That an acute attention to details can produce a sense of both reality and its opposite is a recurring perception in Banville’s writing. (The captured murderer at the opening of The Book of Evidence, scoping out the crowd gathered to watch him being hustled into a squad car: “It was unreal, somehow, frightening yet comic, the sight of them there, milling on the pavement like film extras, young men in cheap raincoats, and women with shopping bags, and one or two silent, grizzled characters who just stood, fixed on me hungrily, haggard with envy.”) Snow offers many reminders of Banville’s mastery of unsettling personification: the detective pushes his way, for instance, through “sullenly resistant trees,” while a bag taken to a hotel room before its occupant “seemed to regard him smugly, as though, having got here first, it considered itself the rightful occupier.” At their most philosophical, these techniques show the world as simply there, not quite credible precisely because it is so overwhelming and inarguable.

The danger of a work like Snow is that the copy might degrade the original. What is stunning suffers from being unmasked as a trick. At times, Snow feels like a room in which a harsh, overhead light has been suddenly switched on, revealing gold as gold paint, flaking. In fact, the earlier works are more than secure in themselves, but their—even highly competent—reproduction nonetheless prompts unease. From a writer of Banville’s magnificent talents, one might have hoped for more cunning ways of leaving the reader wanting more.