The Lemur by Benjamin Black
Enough red herrings strewn in your path to keep you guessing almost to the end
The LemurPublisher: Picador
Author: Benjamin Black
US publication date: 2008-06
"Benjamin Black", of course, is Irish novelist -- and Man Booker Prize-winner -- John Banville. The difference between the two, Banville explained to the LA Weekly in May, is that John Banville writes "first-person narratives of obsessed, half-demented men going on and on and on and on," while Benjamin Black's work is "completely action-driven, and it's dialogue-driven, and it's character-driven."
Banville also says he was inspired to write the Black books after becoming acquainted with the writings of Georges Simenon -- not the Maigret mysteries, but the taut, atmospheric, psychological thrillers that Simenon called his roman dur (hard novel) tales. Banville's latest Benjamin Black outing, The Lemur is most like Simenon in the economy of its narrative: It can easily be read in a single sitting.
John Glass, the protagonist, is a world-famous Irish journalist who has given up the trade.
Luckily for Glass, his wife, Louise, is well-provided for by her father, William "Big Bill" Mulholland, a former CIA honcho turned cable tycoon. Big Bill has decided he wants to have his life story written up and has commissioned the otherwise unoccupied Glass -- for a cool million -- to do the honors. Glass, in turn, has hired a geeky "freelance researcher" named Dylan Riley to find out everything he can about the old boy.
With his "long neck and little head and those big, shiny eyes, (Riley) bore a strong resemblance to one of the more exotic rodents, though for the moment Glass could not think which one."
As it happens, it isn't a rodent at all that Riley reminds Glass of. It's a lemur -- hence, the title.
It isn't long before a murder takes place, and Glass is apparently the last person who spoke with the victim, who may have known something incriminating about Big Bill or maybe just something seriously embarrassing to Glass.
The whodunit aspects of The Lemur are actually pretty deft, with enough red herrings strewn in your path to keep you guessing almost to the end. But other aspects make it plain that Benjamin Black has more in common with John Banville and less with Georges Simenon than Banville suspects. Consider this passage:
"Today the sun was shining weakly, like an invalid venturing out after a long, bedridden winter, but spring had arrived at last, and now and then a silken shimmery something would come sprinting through the trees, silvering the new buds and shivering the windowpanes of the apartment opposite and then going suddenly still, like children stopping in the middle of a chasing game. The square of sky above the courtyard was a pale and grainy blue."
There's nothing at all wrong with this, but except for the opening phrase and the concluding sentence, it is a far cry from Simenon's spare precision. Compare it to this passage from Simenon's "The Engagement:
"Outside, patches of pavement were already dry of rain, and the wind rustled in the trees overhead. From time to time, a market cart would rumble by, or the footsteps of a pedestrian could be heard echoing through the neighborhood streets."
Simenon would have cut Banville's similes and ditched his lyricism. Also, while Simenon may record what his characters feel, think or observe, he never exactly tells his story through any of them. The Lemur is told solely from the perspective of John Glass. And who exactly is John Glass? Well, there's this:
"His reports on Northern Ireland during the Troubles, on the massacre in Tiananmen Square, on the Rwandan genocide, on the intifada, on the bloody afternoon in Srebrenica, not so much reports as extended and passionate jeremiads -- there would be no more of them. Something had ceased in him, a light had been extinguished, he did not know why."
Later on, though, he thinks that the real reason he gave up journalism was "because fundamentally he had scant concern for human beings. It was events that interested him, things happening, not those involved." No wonder Louise asks him at one point, "Don't you know anything about human beings?"
In other words, this is a third-person narrative of an "obsessed, half-demented" John Banville character cast in the leading role of a thriller. Which would be fine, except that whenever we are not shown things from the idiosyncratic viewpoint of John Glass, what we are served is generic Manhattan, Long Island, or America. The tales of "the Company" could have been lifted from any of a dozen action-flick scripts.
The real problem, though, is that the satisfaction that comes of a murder mystery lies not only in discovering the culprit, but also in bringing said culprit to justice. That seems of little concern here, and it is unclear at the end if it will come to pass. The main point is that John Glass get his moral comeuppance. Protagonist and corpse alike are mere perspective figures in a vast and sour amoral landscape.