Snow by John Banville
both published 2020
This was a surprise and a half.
I like Richard Osman very much as a television host: he is funny, charming, knowledgeable, good-hearted.
When I heard he was writing a crime story I shook my head. Famous people writing detective fiction is always a terrible idea. Either they get a ghost writer – in which case it isn’t their book, see Gypsy Rose Lee and the rather splendid G-string murders (and great photos in the post of GRL herself) – Craig Rice is assumed to have written hers. But if they insist on writing their own, famous people write dire books.
No names, but I have read and tut-tutted at crime books by many people who think they must be able to do it – including some writers of literary fiction. Well: one name. Someone who may be able to write a Booker Prize winner, but doesn’t do good crime.
I recently read John Banville’s Snow, and complained afterwards that the detective was incompetent and did no detecting. The person I said this to replied that there were next to no murders in Ireland in the 1950s, so the poor fictional policeman would have had no experience. Fair comment I suppose. I had had a mixed reaction to his previous book – on the blog here, it’s the one with the important link to the Chalet School – but Snow was horrible, predictable, lazy and shoddy and appeared not to have been edited at all. (Where did that girl go to school? How old was she?) For me, it failed on every level. Nice cover though.
Back to Richard Osman. Next I heard was that this book was a ‘funny’ crime story, about old people solving crimes, set in a retirement village, and was the first of a series. Oh dear oh dear, I thought. This is awful news. Comedy crime is the most dreadful thing in 99% of cases.
But obviously I had to read the book, and – you can see this coming can’t you? – it was absolutely marvellous, I loved it. It is funny, clever, a real crime story and a real book. Maybe the plot is a bit too elaborate, and my goodness there are a lot of people and events to keep track of, but it is a wonderful story, with a lot to say about modern life. It has great observations, thoughtful comments, wonderful characters, tremendous jokes, and a strain of gentle melancholy.
‘Mine was the risk of a young man and hers was the risk of a young woman, and that was a greater risk in those days wasn’t it?’
Honestly it is a joy: clever and good-hearted but realistic. (There are elements that are not realistic – a tremendous character with a secretive background who can do anything and drops hints about her past – but only in a really good way, I can forgive that character anything.) And it’s impressively full of good faith on the subject of love that can last a long long time...
‘Love, John,’ says Joyce. ‘Aways love.’
Daft and deft as one of the reviews said. It is not cozy, whatever you hear, but it does have goodness at heart:
'God save us from window locks, WPC De Freitas.’
‘It’s just PC now,’ says Donna.
‘I see,’ says Elizabeth, lips pursing. ‘And what happens if I still choose to say WPC? Will there be a warrant for my arrest?’
‘No, but I’ll think a bit less of you,’ says Donna, ‘Because it’s a really simple thing to do, and it’s more respectful to me.’
‘Damn! Checkmate. OK,’ says Elizabeth, and unpurses her lips.
And there is a nice unexpected twist in the relationship between the two coppers. And throwaways like this:
There was a proper exodus. Though not a quick exodus, because you know that getting out of a garden chair at our age is a military operation. Once you are in one, you can be in it for the day.
It’s going to be a series – of course – and you can see there would be endless possibilities for the setup, and I will happily read a book a year about the Thursday Murder Club for as long as Richard Osman wants to write them. (I’ll be buying that before I buy the next John Banville crime novel, that’s for sure.)
An amazing number of adverts for retirement villages turn up at my house, so it was easy to find a leaflet to photograph.
***ADDED LATER I found an excuse to add this boast-y story! Richard Osman presents a quiz programme called Richard's House of Games on UK TV. In a recent episode, players were being offered possibly false answers. One of them concerned the murder weapon used to kill Maybelle in the slightly obscure Agatha Christie short story The Bird with the Broken Wing. After a few seconds thought I said to my partner 'that's not right - she was strangled with a ukelele string'. He was strangely unimpressed, but I think that was pretty good going...
What a contrast between books, Moira! The Thursday Murder Club does sound fantastic. I like the idea of older sleuths; they have wisdom and experience that can really add to a story. And I give a lot of credit to authors who can weave wit into their stories without it being overdone. In general, I'm with you when it comes to famous people writing crime novels, but sometimes it works quite well. I'm glad it did for you here.ReplyDelete
I was surprised and delighted Margot! I very much hope he will write a series. I liked the good heart at the centre of the book.Delete
I also loved this book and got really fond of the characters. Like you, I'm glad to find that someone I like can write a good crime story. Private Eye has been nasty about it, saying he was going for 'the grey pound'. I am the grey pound! It's not as if he were the first author to feature elderly characters solving crimes; see Miss Marple, Miss Silver, Mrs Malory, Mrs Trewynn (in Carola Dunn's Cornish Mysteries) and all those male detectives still working in their seventies.ReplyDelete
I don't see how someone could read it and dislike it, even if they don't love it. I have read crime books with every kind of detective - all ages and types. Some were good and some weren't, but all of them should be judged on their merits, not in advance. (Although I have a faint personal resistance to cats as detectives... )Delete
My reaction was the same as yours, Moira, a sinking of the heart ... but if you say it's good, I am pretty sure I'd like it as we so rarely disagree. And I like the bits you've quoted.ReplyDelete
Honestly Chrissie, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Give it a go sometime. It was an easy and enjoyable read.Delete
Glad to hear that you liked the Osman book and now that I know more about it, maybe I will try it too. Sometime. I usually shy away from something so new and already so popular (and I did not even know who Osman is). His ratings on Goodreads are obscene (11,000 ratings, 2000 reviews) for a book out less than three months.ReplyDelete
I will not tell my husband that you disliked the Banville book so much (yet), as he is in the middle of it and appears to be enjoying it. I read the first book in his series as Benjamin Black (before blogging) and liked it well enough to buy the second but haven't read that one yet.
Yes keep quiet about my rudeness about Banville! Will be interested to hear what Glen made of it when he has finished. And I think you will like this one if you get to it some time... Richard Osman is very well-known and well-liked here, and to be honest, that would probably get him the chance to get any book published. But this truly holds its own as a crimestory.Delete
I'll have a look at the Banville: I liked some of his own-name books and gave up on his supposed Chandler-homage as Black. Reading a Banville novel for the plot is like reading Tristram Shandy for the story. You read Banville for the atmosphere, which - going by the extracts - is there in Snow.ReplyDelete
He's got a very odd attitude to the Anglo-Irish/British upper class - it's particularly noticeable in the way he conflated Louis MacNeice and Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable.
I feel much the same - but there are few authors I have such a varied response to. I LOVED The Untouchable, I think it's a top-ranking book, and also the Newton Letter, and very much liked some of the others. But not the Black books...Delete
Good to hear that you rate the Osman so highly! It's been doing very well for us in the shop - easily our top-selling hardback over the past few months - and the feedback from customers has been largely very positive. It's lovely to get a surprise like this, especially given the warmth and humanity the book seems to convey.Delete
As you say, nice to have a pleasant surprise! And he deserves the sales. It's one of those books that makes you convinced that the author is a really nice person.Delete
Got a copy of one of these for my wife for Christmas - a sneaky way of getting to read it myself!ReplyDelete
Hope she loves it. I think a lot of people have done the same - the book is topping the Christmas sales charts. But for once I think it really deserves it.Delete