Benjamin Black’s first two novels, CHRISTINE FALLS and THE SILVER SWAN, were set for the most part in 1950s Dublin and featured a pathologist, Quirke, as a variation on a staple of the crime fiction protagonist, the reluctant private investigator. Languid and graceful in style, morbidly claustrophobic in atmosphere, the crime novels are written to a very high standard, as you might expect of John Banville, Benjamin Black’s more literary alter-ego, even if events tend to unfold at a pace that is unusually sedate for the genre.
THE LEMUR is a different affair entirely, and not only because it is set in New York in the present day. First published in serial form in the New York Times magazine, it is notable, at 132 pages, for its brevity. Its protagonist, John Glass, is a once-famous journalist who has abandoned his principles to the extent that he has accepted a million-dollar commission from his father-in-law, ‘Big’ Bill Mullholland, to write the ex-CIA operative’s biography. Glass employs a researcher, whom he nicknames ‘The Lemur’, to dig into Mulholland’s past, an unwise move that results in blackmail, extortion and murder.
It’s a conventional set-up, but the joy of THE LEMUR is watching John Banville wriggle around in what can often be a strait-jacketed genre. “The police station, if that was what to call it – headquarters? precinct house? – looked just as it would have in the movies,” he writes with an deceptively jaunty air of disregard for detail, before following up with the observation that “ … if viewed from above, all this apparently random toing and froing would resolve itself into a series of patterns … as in a Busby Berkeley musical,” and describing the police captain as having “the face of an El Greco martyr, with deep brown, suffering eyes and a nose like a finely honed stone ax-head.”
The tale, while straightforward by the standards of the more complex contemporary crime narratives, benefits from the brevity imposed by its serialisation. It’s no more than a novella, but each relatively short chapter contains its fair share of twists and surprises, albeit stealthily delivered, the story emerging as sinuously as the smoke from Glass’s beloved cigarettes.
There are caveats, of course. Crime fiction aficionados will very probably anticipate the final twist long before the big reveal at the end, and the constraints of time and space mean that events are too quickly forced to be entirely believable. The biggest issue you may have with THE LEMUR, however, is that it is just too short. Easily read in one sitting, it offers an all-too-brief glimpse into a world peopled with exquisitely detailed characters, particularly as Banville’s sense of mischief is palpable and infectious.
Even if you are a die-hard fan of the genre, this offering is worth reading for the simple joy of reading John Banville in playful mood. And if you haven’t read crime fiction before, THE LEMUR might well be the perfect place to start. – Declan Burke
This review was first published by the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.