Excerpt

Snow

John Banville

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Snow, by John Banville. It's 1957, and Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is called to investigate the murder of a priest, whose body has been found in a home owned by the Osborne family, a wealthy, powerful clan. As snowfall begins to pile, and the town grows even more silent on the matter, he begins to look into the Osborne family. And then his own deputy goes missing.

“The body is in the library,” Colonel Osborne said. “Come this way.”

Detective Inspector Strafford was accustomed to cold houses. He had spent his earliest years in a great gaunt man­sion much like this one, then he had been sent away to school to a place that was even bigger and grayer and colder. He often marveled at the extremes of discomfort and misery that chil­dren were expected to endure without the slightest squeak of protest or complaint. Now, as he followed Osborne across the broad hallway—time-polished flagstones, a set of antlers on a plaque, dim portraits of Osborne ancestors lining the walls on either side—it seemed to him the air was even icier here than it was outside. In a cavernous stone grate three sods of damp turf arranged in a tripod smoldered sullenly, giving out no detect­able warmth.

It had snowed continuously for two days, and this morn­ing everything appeared to stand in hushed amazement before the spectacle of such expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides. People said it was unheard of, that they had never known weather like it, that it was the worst winter in living memory. But they said that every year when it snowed, and also in years when it didn’t snow.

The library 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. The mullioned windows were set into deep granite embrasures, and snow-light glared through their numerous tiny leaded panes. Strafford had already cast a skeptical eye on the architecture of the place. Arts-and-Crafts fakery, he had thought straight off, with a mental sniff. He wasn’t a snob, not exactly, only he liked things to be left as they were, and not got up as what they could never hope to be.

But then, what about himself?—was he entirely authentic? He hadn’t missed the surprised glance with which Colonel Os­borne, opening the front door, had scanned him from head to toe and back again. It was only a matter of time before he would be told, by Colonel Osborne or someone else in the house, that he didn’t look much like a policeman. He was used to it. Most people meant it as a compliment, and he tried to take it in that spirit, though it always made him feel like a confidence trick­ster whose trick had been exposed.

Article continues below

What people meant was that he didn’t look like an Irish policeman.

Detective Inspector Strafford, first name St. John—“It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain—was thirty-five and looked ten years younger. He was tall and thin—“gangly” was the word—with a sharp, narrow face, eyes that in certain lights showed as green and hair of no particular color, a lock of which had a tendency to fall across his forehead like a limp, gleaming wing, and which he would push back with a charac­teristic stiff gesture involving all four fingers of his left hand. He wore a gray three-piece suit that, like all his clothes, appeared to be a size or more too big for him, a narrowly knotted wool tie, a fob watch on a chain—it had been his grandfather’s—a gray gabardine trench coat and a gray wool scarf. He had taken off a soft black fedora and now held it by the brim at his side. His shoes were soaked from melted snow—he didn’t seem to notice the puddles forming under him on the carpet.

There was not as much blood as there should have been, given the wounds that had been inflicted. When he looked more closely he saw that someone had mopped up most of it. The priest’s body had been tampered with, too. He lay on his back, hands joined on his breast. His legs were aligned neatly side by side. All that was lacking was a set of rosary beads twined around his knuckles.

Say nothing for now, Strafford told himself. There would be time enough for the awkward questions later on.

On the floor above the priest’s head stood a tall brass candle­stick. The candle in it had burned out completely and the wax had flowed all down the sides. It looked, bizarrely, like a frozen cascade of champagne.

Article continues below

“Damnedest thing, eh?” the Colonel said, touching it with the toe of his shoe. “Gave me the shivers, I can tell you. As if there’d been a Black Mass, or something.”

“Umm.”

Strafford had never heard of the murder of a priest before, not in this country, or at least not since the days of the Civil War, which had ended while he was still a toddler. It would be a huge scandal, when the details got out, if they got out. He didn’t want to think about that just yet.

“Lawless, that was his name, you say?”

Colonel Osborne, frowning down at the dead man, nod­ded. “Father Tom Lawless, yes—or just Father Tom, which is what everyone called him. Very popular, in these parts. Quite the character.”

“A friend of the family, then?”

“Yes, a friend of the house. He often comes over—came over, I suppose I should say now—from his place up at Scallanstown. His horse is stabled here—I’m master of the Keelmore hounds, Father Tom never missed an outing. We were supposed to ride yesterday, but there was the snow. He called in, anyway, and stayed for dinner, and we gave him a bed for the night. I couldn’t have let him go out again in that weather.” His eyes went back to the corpse. “Though looking at him now, and what’s become of the poor chap, I bitterly regret that I didn’t send him home, snow or no snow. Who would do such a terrible thing to him I can’t think.” He gave a slight cough, and waggled a finger em­barrassedly in the direction of the dead man’s crotch. “I fastened up his trousers as best I could, for decency’s sake.” So much for the integrity of the crime scene, Strafford thought, with a silent sigh. “When you look you’ll see that they—well, they gelded the poor chap. Barbarians.”

“‘They’?” Strafford inquired, raising his eyebrows.

“They. He. I don’t know. It’s the kind of thing we used to see a lot of in the old days, when they were fighting for their so-called freedom and the countryside was thick with murder­ing ruffians of all sorts and hues. There must be a few of them still about, if this is anything to go by.”

“So you think the killer, or killers, got in from outside?”

“Well, for God’s sake, man, you don’t imagine anyone in the house would do a thing like this, do you?”

“A burglar, then? Any signs of forced entry—smashed window, broken door lock?”

“Can’t say, haven’t checked. Isn’t that your job, searching for clues and so on?”

Colonel Osborne looked to be in his early fifties, lean and leathery, with a nailbrush mustache and sharp, ice-blue eyes. He was of middle height, and would have been taller if he hadn’t been markedly bowlegged—the result, perhaps, Strafford thought sardonically, of all that riding to hounds—and he walked with a curious gait, at once rolling and rickety, like an orangutan that had something wrong with its knees. He wore highly pol­ished brown brogues, cavalry twill trousers with a sharp crease, a tweed shooting jacket, checked shirt and a spotted bow tie in a subdued shade of blue. He smelled of soap and tobacco smoke and horses. He was balding on top, with a few strands of sandy hair heavily oiled and brushed fiercely away from the temples and meeting at the back of his skull in a sort of spiked ruffle, like the tip of the tail of an exotic bird.

He had seen action in the war as an officer with the Inniskilling Dragoons, did something noteworthy at Dunkirk and was awarded a medal for it.

Very much a type, was Colonel Osborne. A type that Straf­ford was thoroughly familiar with.

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. That was the code of the Colonel’s class, which was Strafford’s class, too.

“Who found him?”

“My wife.”

“I see. Did she say if this is the way he was, lying like this, with his hands joined?”

“No. In fact, I tidied him up a bit.”

“I see.”

Bloody hell, he thought. Bloody hell.

“But I didn’t join his hands—that must have been Mrs. Duffy.” He shrugged. “You know what they’re like,” he added quietly, with a meaning look.

By “they,” Strafford knew, he meant Catholics, of course.

Now the Colonel produced a monogrammed silver cigarette case from the inside breast pocket of his jacket, pressed the catch with his thumb, opened the case flat on his palm and proffered two full neat rows of cigarettes, each row corralled behind an elastic strap. The brand was Senior Service, Strafford noted automatically. “Care to smoke?”

“No, thanks,” Strafford said. He was still considering the corpse. Father Tom had been a big man, with burly shoul­ders and a barrel chest. There were woolly clumps of hair in his ears—priests, being wifeless, tended to neglect that kind of thing, Strafford reflected. Which reminded him—“And where is she now,” he asked, “your wife?”

“Eh?” Osborne stared at him for a second, twin tusks of cigarette smoke flaring from his nostrils. “Oh, yes. She’s upstairs, resting. I made her take some brandy and port. You can imag­ine the state she’s in.”

“Of course.”

Strafford, batting his hat softly against his left thigh, looked about distractedly. Everything felt unreal, the big square room, the lofty bookcases, the fine but faded Turkey carpet, the fur­niture arranged just so and the body, laid out so neatly, the eyes open and filmed over, gazing upward vaguely, as if their owner were not dead but lost in puzzled speculation.

And then there was the man standing on the other side of the corpse, in his pressed slacks and checked cotton shirt and expertly knotted bow tie, with his military mustache and his cold eyes and a star of light from the window behind him twinkling on the slope of his taut, tanned scalp. It all seemed too theatrical, especially with that unnaturally brilliant white light pressing in from outdoors. It was too much like the last scene of a drawing-room melodrama, with the curtain about to come down and the audience getting ready to applaud.

What had gone on here last night, that had left this man dead and mutilated?

“You came down from Dublin?” Colonel Osborne inquired. “Treacherous going, I imagine. The roads are like glass.” He paused, lifting one eyebrow and lowering the other. “You drove alone?”

“They got me on the telephone, and I came across. I was visiting relatives down here.”

“Ah. I see. What was the name again? Stafford?”

“Strafford, with an r.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t worry, everyone makes the same mistake.”

Colonel Osborne was nodding, frowning, thinking. “Straf­ford,” he murmured. “Strafford.” He took a long draw from his cigarette. He was trying to place the name. The detective didn’t offer to help him.

“There’ll be more people arriving shortly,” he said. “Guards, in uniform. A forensic team. And a photographer.”

Colonel Osborne stared in alarm. “From the newspapers?”

“The photographer? No—one of ours. To make a photographic record of the—of the crime scene. You’ll hardly notice him. But the story will probably be all over the papers, you know, and on the wireless, too. No stopping that.”

“No, I suppose not,” Colonel Osborne said gloomily.

“Of course, what exactly the story will be won’t be our de­cision.”

“How’s that?”

Strafford shrugged. “I’m sure you know as well as I do that in this country, nothing gets into the papers that hasn’t been—well, vetted.”

“Vetted? Who by?”

“The powers that be.” The detective gestured toward the corpse at their feet. “It is a priest that was murdered, after all.”

Colonel Osborne nodded, making a sideways chewing mo­tion with his lower jaw. “They can vet away, as far as I’m con­cerned. The less of it that comes out, the better pleased I’ll be.”

“Yes. You might be lucky.”

“Lucky?”

“It mightn’t get out at all. I mean, the circumstances might be—glossed over, shall we say? It’s not unheard of.”

The Colonel missed the irony of that last observation. The glossing over of scandals wasn’t so much unheard of as the norm. He was gazing down at the corpse again. “Awful busi­ness, though. God knows what the neighbors will say.”

Once more he eyed the detective with that quizzically one-sided look. “Strafford,” he said. “Funny, I thought I knew all the families in these parts.”

By which he meant, of course, all the Protestant families, as Strafford was well aware. Protestants made up five percent of the population of the still relatively young Republic, and of this number only a fraction—“Horse Protestants,” as Catholic Ireland derisively called them—still managed to cling on to their estates and live more or less as they had done in the days before indepen­dence. It was hardly surprising, then, that they should all expect to know each other, or at least to know of each other, through an intricate network of relatives, in-laws, neighbors, as well as a cohort of ancient enemies.

In Strafford’s case, however, it was apparent that Colonel Os­borne was stumped. The detective, amused, decided to relent—what did it matter?

“Roslea,” he said, as if it were a password, which, when he came to think of it, it was. “Over near Bunclody, that side of the county.”

“Ah, yes,” the Colonel said, frowning. “Roslea House? I think I was in the place once, at a wedding or the like, years ago. Is that your—?”

“Yes. My family lives there still. That’s to say, my father does. My mother died young, and I was an only child.” An only child. It always sounded strange, to his adult ears.

“Yes, yes,” Colonel Osborne mumbled, nodding. He had been only half listening. “Yes, indeed.”

Strafford could see the man was not impressed—there were no Osbornes anywhere near the parish of Roslea, and where there were no Osbornes there could be, for the Colonel, noth­ing else of much interest. Strafford imagined his father chuck­ling. His father derived a quiet amusement from the pretensions of his co-religionists and the elaborate rituals of class and privi­lege, or imagined privilege, by which they lived, or sought to live, in these straitened times.

Thinking of these things, Strafford was once more struck by the strangeness of this killing. How could it possibly have come about that a Catholic priest, “a friend of the house,” should be lying here dead in his own blood, in Ballyglass House, hereditary seat of the Osbornes, of the ancient barony of Scarawalsh, in the County of Wexford? What, indeed, would the neighbors say.

They heard a far-off knocking at the front door.

“That’s probably Jenkins,” Strafford said. “Detective Sergeant Jenkins, my second in command. They told me he was on his way.”

__________________________________

From Snow by John Banville. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hanover Square. Copyright © 2020 by John Banville.




More Story
10 New Books Coming Out This Week Another week, another batch of books for your TBR pile. Happy reading, folks. * Layne Fargo, They Never Learn (Gallery/Scout...

Support CrimeReads - Become a Member

CrimeReads needs your help. The mystery world is vast, and we need your support to cover it the way it deserves. With your contribution, you'll gain access to exclusive newsletters, editors' recommendations, early book giveaways, and our new "Well, Here's to Crime" tote bag.

Become a member for as low as $5/month

x