The Lemur by Benjamin Black

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The Lemur, the slim new novella from John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, forsakes 1950s Dublin and Quirke, the quirky hero of Black's first two mysteries (Christine Falls and The Silver Swan), and gives us instead a tale set in modern day New York.

The hero of The Lemur is John Glass, a one-time investigative journalist who has grown soft through his marriage into money. His wife, whom he married for love before the love wore off, is the daughter of William 'Big Bill' Mulholland, an Irish-American electronics billionaire. Big Bill has commissioned Glass to write the ex-CIA man's authorised biography. Not wanting to do too much donkey work himself, Glass hires a researcher – the eponymous Lemur.

The Lemur is a very tall, very thin young man with a head too small for his frame and an adam's apple the size of a golf ball. His none-too-clean tee-shirt bears the legend Life Sucks And Then You Die. Pretty soon, the Lemur does indeed die, and the last person he called before being shot in the eye with a small calibre bullet, probably a Beretta, is John Glass. 'That,' Captain Ambrose from the NYPD tells Glass, 'makes you the last one to talk to him alive.' When Glass says, 'You mean, the second last', Captain Ambrose grins. 'Yeah. Right.'

End of chapter.

Ordinarily, this would lead to a certain amount of dramatic tension, a hero desperate to prove his innocence, possibly a cliffhanging ending. But Glass has a cast-iron alibi, and it's an alibi the police readily accept. So who did kill the Lemur? What does it all have to do with Big Bill Mulholland? Who cares? None of the characters are particularly likeable, and most of them are either clichés, cardboard cut-outs, or both. The story moves along to its unsurprising conclusion in a way that suggests even Banville is bored with Black's latest offering.

I read somewhere (I can't remember where) that Banville was specifically commissioned by the New York Times (I think) to write a Benjamin Black crime serial. This is the result. Described on the dust jacket as 'a contemporary thriller', The Lemur is a story in 15 episodes without a single thrill. If you want a taut thriller, don't buy this book.

But if you are a die-hard fan of John Banville's writing, and are in the mood for a quick light read that is enjoyable while never taxing, this one's for you. The writing is a step or two above the usual standard of prose in genre fiction and there's just about enough narrative drive to keep you interested, if not riveted. And it's very short. I bought it because I had nothing to read on a bus journey, and I had nearly finished it by the time I reached my destination an hour or so later. When I did finish it, the final twist turned out to be very limp indeed.

I don't think I can recommend this, other than to borrow a copy for its curiosity value. If you like Banville's prose, read anything under his own name. If you want a much better Benjamin Black book, then I would recommend both Christine Falls and The Silver Swan.

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