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the lemur

1 january 2009

The Lemur is a classily produced noir novella. A "paperback original" in a sharp stiff-paper jacket with an alliterative author (Benjamin Black) who has been drawing raves lately for intelligent Irish crime thrillers, it would seem well worth the wear on your library card's barcode. Unfortunately, there is less here than meets the eye.

Benjamin Black, first of all, is actually John Banville, an Irish writer better known for elaborate existential novels. "Benjamin Black" is his pseudonym in the world of pulp thrillers. Banville is not the only highbrow contemporary novelist to have a pulp alter ego. Paul Auster, whose postmodern work is an extension of his pulp sensibility, began his career as the detective novelist "Paul Benjamin." Julian Barnes penned several hard-boileds as "Dan Kavanagh" early in his career.

One might generalize and say that literary novelists who write pulp when young and starving have better success at it than those who turn to it as a late-career avocation. To go by a sample size of one in the case of The Lemur, Banville at least doesn't really succeed. He knows what a noir feels like; he knows the clichés and even lets us know that his protagonist, a jaded writer named John Glass, knows the clichés.

But in the end, all that The Lemur has to offer are clichés. The scary old-school CIA hand. The hacker who knew too much. Manhattan evoked by a couple of trendy restaurants, a sterile skyscraper, and a painter's studio.

The Lemur himself barely appears in the novel. When John Glass is hired by his scary old-school CIA father-in-law to write said father-in-law's life story, Glass in turn hires an über-hacker named Dylan Riley to do the legwork. Riley looks like a lemur. Riley learns an awful secret, tries to blackmail Glass, and meets a sticky end.

Not a bad premise, but it goes nowhere. The awful secret that Riley uncovers is pretty much the only one that's there to uncover. Glass seems to be the only guy who doesn't know about it ("the only patsy in the room," he reflects), and when things implode, you have to wonder why his father-in-law set him a task which would lead in short order to his uncovering it.

The basic model for the story of The Lemur is the film Chinatown: man interested in woman falls afoul of her titanic father. The model is underscored by having John Huston himself, who played the titanic father in Chinatown, appear as a minor character in the fictional John Glass's past.

When a noir has no atmosphere to speak of, it needs mystery; when it has no mystery to offer, it at least needs some atmosphere. The Lemur doesn't manage either.

Banville, John [as "Benjamin Black."] The Lemur. New York: Picador, 2008.