- Snow, by John Banville. Crime Fiction. Faber. $29.99.
Irish novelist, John Banville won the Booker Prize for The Sea in 2005. He has described himself as a "perfectionist", lamenting that he can spend a day on one sentence in his intricate, vocabulary rich novels.
As a result, they can take up to five years to complete and even then he's not satisfied.
In an interview in 2009, Banville admitted that his books were to him " an embarrassment and a deep source of shame. They're better than every body else's of course, but not good enough for me".
Banville, however, had discovered writng freedom earlier in 2005, when on holiday in Italy he began to write a detective novel set in Dublin in the 1950s.
In a few hours, he had written more than he would usually write in a week and the novel was finished in six months.
He later admitted he had been reading Georges Simenon and, as a result, was inspired to write in a simpler style with a more limited vocabulary.
Benjamin Black was born when Christine Falls was published in 2007, featuring his heavy drinking detective, Quirke, the pathologist in the Dublin coroner's office.
Banville said, "As Black, I was determined to write with as plain a style as possible. Banville now and then would try to compel him to slow down and savour the sentences, and this was something he had to be on guard against. I always say that what you get from Black is the result of spontaneity, whereas in Banville it's an extreme of concentration".
Black has since written six more Quirke novels as well as The Black-eyed Blonde, an homage to Raymond Chandler and The Secret Guests, in which Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret seek refuge in Ireland during World War II.
Banville's latest novel, Snow, is a murder mystery but his own name, not Black's, is on the cover.
He has said that when he reread some of Black's books he was "surprised and highly gratified to discover they weren't bad at all and in fact might even be quite good. I said to myself, Why do I need this rascal anyway . . . and that was the end of him".
Snow, set in 1957, begins with Agatha Christie motifs, a body in the library of Ballyglass House on the estate of Colonel Osborne, but with distinctly Irish overtones.
The body is that of a Catholic priest and the dilapidated house is owned by an Anglo-Irish Protestant family. Banville remembers as a boy having "a peasant's fascination with the Anglo Irish aristocratic class", their foreign English accents and genteel tweeds.
Banville's Detective Inspector St John (pronounced 'Sinjun') Strafford is from the same class.
Thirty-five years old, Strafford is tall and thin, "with a sharp, narrow face, eyes that in certain lights showed green, and hair of no particular colour, a lock of which had a tendency to fall across his forehead like a limp, gleaming wing".
Everyone tells him he doesn't look like a policeman, but he knows they mean he doesn't look like an Irish policeman. His nickname in the police is Lord Snooty, as his Anglo-Irish family own Roslea house "over the other side of the country".
His father had urged him to study law and Strafford is aware that, by now, he would be a successful barrister in Dublin instead of "sullen and solitary and furious at everything, himself especially".
Strafford arrives at Ballyglass House just before Christmas, after two days of heavy snow and "this morning everything appeared to stand in hushed amazement before the spectacle of such expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides".
The murdered priest, Father Tom Lawless, has been stabbed in the neck and castrated. Lawless was a friend of the family, stabled his horse at Ballyglass House and hunted with the Colonel.
Given the weather, Strafford suspects that someone in the house must be the murderer.
Banville assembles an extraordinary cast of characters.
To Strafford, everyone at Ballyglass House "seemed to be in costume, seemed to be dressed for a part": the Colonel, the country squire, hero of Dunkirk "blunt, bluff and safely dim"; his son Dominic, in "tweed and twill, brown brogues and checked shirt"; his daughter Lettie in jodhpurs and riding jacket, "despite the fact she never got on a horse"; his young second wife, part flirt, part madwoman, perpetually sedated by the family doctor and Mrs Duffy " the stock family retainer".
Banville uses the format of a classic country house murder mystery, with its atmosphere of secrecy and repression, to reveal and condemn the power of the Catholic church in Ireland to cover up the sadistic abuse of children by priests.
Banville has already written a second novel featuring Strafford, due out next year, in which he introduces his detective to Quirke. Banville and Black have become one.