It seems to me that production of detective stories on so large a scale, and by writers whose immediate reward is small and whose need of critical praise is almost nil, would not be possible at all if the job took any talent.
Eighty years ago, in The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler's words got the whole publishing world up in arms. He continued in bald and no-nonsense language, “The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published.”
Veteran readers and close watchers of the publishing world have always gaped at Chandler’s contention that average novels don’t get published. They most certainly do, in great heaps, every season. But there’s a deeper, even more, contentious implication in those infamous Chandler lines: the idea that there’s a talent-divide between the detective story and the “serious” novel. That distinction still plagues genre fiction. Snobbish readers take it as a matter of plain fact that writing a romance novel is easier than writing a serious piece of “literary” fiction.
The assumption of this talent-divide has one further implication: that any ‘serious’ writer who writes genre fiction must be somehow slumming it, that their genre fiction is born of a combination of condescension and greed, something that embarrasses them, prompts them to assume pen-names or dismiss their more genre-oriented works. Graham Greene famously referred to his as “entertainments.” or and the like.
For this book season, we look to the deeply respected Irish writer John Banville, who’s won a shelf of prestigious literary awards for his ‘serious’ fiction. Banville has written a series of detective novels under the pen name Benjamin Black. His new book, Snow, is his first detective novel bearing his real name. It is a more-or-less traditional house-bound murder mystery set in 1957 Ireland. A Catholic priest named Father Tom Lawless has been found murdered at a cold old manor house. Detective Inspector St. John Strafford investigates and encounters a morass of lies and subterfuge from all aristocratic Osborne family members who own the old house.
Banville intentionally lards the novel with a baker’s dozen of cliches from the Golden Age of mystery fiction: the baroquely dysfunctional family, the crumbling old pile with shadows everywhere, the body in the library, the closed set of suspects (the titular snow has virtually shut down the house), the detective-as-outsider—Strafford is a Protestant in a country full of Catholics, including the family.
Banville is a subtle, canny writer, and readers familiar with how smartly he tends to subvert the standard momentum of the kinds of stories he’s telling will know to expect that in Snow.
And Banville doesn't disappoint. He skillfully layers those predictable Golden Age elements onto a much darker story drawing its tensions from both the universal religious tension of mid-20th century Ireland and the darkness of sexual repression and family depravity. In this way, he smuggles a novel of twisted psychological urgency underneath the far more comfortable trappings of a standard country house murder narrative.
Those Raymond Chandler contentions come back into full force in the end, however, because Snow is an oddly lifeless construction for most of its length. Banville is a master of atmosphere, and Snow is an intensely atmospheric book. But otherwise, it’s inert in precisely the places where a “serious” Banville novel would be most alive. The story’s lone-wolf hero, Strafford, is well-realized, but the other characters are not. The lurking tensions, religious and especially sexual, are never oppressive as they would be in a “serious” Banville novel—they usually feel almost dutiful instead.
The result is a smooth, involving reading experience that far too often feels like one of those average novels Raymond Chandler so confidently declared never get published. Any experienced mystery novel reader will finish Snow and instantly recall half a dozen closed-house murder stories that were far more effective at the precise Golden Age gimmicks this one employs so prominently. And any experienced reader of John Banville novels will finish this one with the queasy feeling that they have watched a talented author phoning in a genre pastiche.
Deeper waters run under the surface of Snow, as we’d expect with anything Banville writes. But why the mystery-novel trappings, particularly when they are executed with such intermittent conviction? And if the mystery-novel trappings, why the deeper waters so much better suited to a non-genre Banville novel? On what creative altar was poor Father Lawless sacrificed?
We may never know, but that great divide between genre fiction and serious fiction isn’t even an inch smaller this season.