The Lemur by Benjamin Black

Starting in on a new (to me) author, I have a bit of a tendency to choose some atypical work that’s probably not a very good introduction at all (e.g., the only Stephen King I have ever read is The Colorado Kid—given, in that case I don’t think I’m suffering too badly, as it was quite good). I generally know this going in, but do it anyway, probably out of stubbornness. I usually give people more than once chance anyhow.

The LemurSo it should not be a surprise that the first John Banville I read is actually a Benjamin Black novel. But not only did I go for the pseudonym before the nym, I chose an atypical Black too. The Lemur is a standalone mystery, not part of the series of Quirk mysteries, and not even set in Ireland. Our detective in this case is John Glass, a former journalist turned “authorized” biographer—of his father-in-law. The lemur is a researcher he considers hiring (who resembles one), found dead by his girlfriend shortly after making a threatening phone call to Glass.

Glass makes a bit of a strange detective to follow around, though. He used to be an investigative journalist of the hard-hitting and probably lefty variety; several characters mention his former glory and current “sold-out” status. But he honestly doesn’t seem to care a whit for investigating anymore. It’s not just that he’s agreed to write the biography of a former CIA agent and incredibly wealthy businessman, he doesn’t care much about solving the mystery of the lemur’s death either. He only looks into matters because he’s afraid the lemur’s blackmail might have involved tipping off Glass’s wife to the existence of his lover.

Glass’s wife, her father, the lover—along with Glass himself all are excellent cast members for such a mystery. Ditto the NYPD detective and a nosy blogger. They’re not the stock stuff of hard-boiled genre work, Black is much better than that, and the treatment of both class and religion brings important depth. But Glass’s stepson felt elusive throughout, hurting an ending that places importance on his psychology.

And the language is gorgeous. “The small rain wept against the windowpane and the cars and taxis going past shimmered and slid as in a wet mirage.” Black can throw sentences like that around like it ain’t no thing. It’s impressive and more importantly makes for a genuinely pleasurable reading experience.

Funny thing about that sentence is that it hardly seems to be describing New York; Black and Glass both seem to want to go back to Ireland. The most vivid and cinematic scenes are set decades earlier, in Connemara, where Glass met his wife and her father for the first time at the home of John Huston, who likes to dress up like a character out of Wodehouse and go tramping around the countryside with the budding reporter.

In spite of all that, though, something about The Lemur feels like Black is phoning it in. The novel as a whole gives the impression of a very talented writer who knows this is one of his lesser works, not, as I was hoping, of a very talented writer getting inside a genre I love and seeing what happens. I’ve heard the Quirk novels are more like that, and I will definitely be reading them, along with The Sea and probably much else besides. A slim little mystery like this might disappoint if you’re hoping for the amazing, but it made a perfectly lovely afternoon read.

4 comments to The Lemur by Benjamin Black

  • I think I need to start buying Benjamin Black novels for whenever I travel – I’m always looking for something that will keep me distracted from the 30,000 feet between me and the earth and I love Banville’s writing but would probably do too much existential musing if I read a Banville in-flight. Black might be a better choice.

  • I’ve read all but one “Banville” novel, but none of the Benjamin Black novels. Do I subconsciously suspect that they’re not so good? Banville says that he writes them very differently, less painstakingly, than his other books, and he is clearly enjoying the some of the freedoms he’s found in the mysteries. The Lemur is extra short, right? It sounds like a good place to see what he’s doing.

    There ain’t no guarantee of nothing, but you’ll probably find a lot to like in Banville. He is, sometimes, extremely Nabokovian.

  • nicole

    Yeah, this one is a tiny 132 pages. Verbivore’s idea of a travel read seems like a very good one.

    Where would you start with Banville, out of curiosity? I have The Sea, but am curious as to whether that would be the best first one. I’ve heard good things about The Newton Letter too.

  • My favorites are The Book of Evidence, The Untouchable, and Doctor Copernicus. My only caution against The Newton Letter is that it’s a self-parody. Banville had just written two biographical novels, about Copernicus and Kepler; The Newton Letter is about the failure to write a biographical novel about Newton.

    Every one of his books that I’ve read contains some unbelievably fine writing. Plotting is not a great strength of Banville’s; psychological acuteness definitely is.