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.
So 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.