The Worst Book I’ve Read in a Long Time or The Lemur by Benjamin Black

lemurBenjamin Black, Booker Prize winning author who is really John Banville, started strong with his first detective novel Christine Falls.  I think we all had high hopes for him, those of us who enjoy detective novels.  His second book, The Silver Swan, didn’t quite measure up to the high standard Christine Falls set but we were willing to forgive– a sophomore slump is not an uncommon thing.  But The Lemur is so bad I just can’t–I just can’t.

I would not have finished The Lemur if it had been a full length book though there’s just barely enough dramatic tension to keep the reader interested at just 132 pages.  Eventually, I admit, I only finished it so I could write up this bad review guilt free.

The story concerns John Glass, something of a journalist, hired by his wealthy father-in-law to write the father-in-law’s official  biography.  Glass hires a researcher, Dylan Riley, who happens to look a little bit like a lemur, to do some digging into his father-in-law’s life.  Riley calls up to say that he has found significant information and that he wants half of Glass’s fee, $500,000 dollars, in exchange for it.  Soon after the call, Riley is murdered, shot through the eye.

What did Riley know?  Of course, Glass’s father-in-law, a former C.I.A. agent turned business mogul, had secrets he wanted to protect.  So did his daughter, Glass’s wife.  Maybe her son had a few secrets, too.  Maybe this crime is connected to a the years old suicide of a long time family friend.  Maybe you’ve read this story before.

Glass doesn’t really investigate the murder.  He asks around some, but he seems happy to let the police and a handful of other people do most of the work.  He really is a terrible journalist.

Things come to a bit of a climax when the suspects, Glass’s father-in-law, his wife and his step-son, are all gathered together in a New York apartment where Glass confronts them. They confess unable to withstand the pressure of a single man who thinks he knows the truth.  Glass is wrong, of course, but he will be corrected and all will be revealed in one of the most unsatisfying endings I’ve ever encountered in a detective story in a very long time, maybe ever.

It’s supposed to be reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express which is pointed out to the reader by Glass’s step-son who says:

You see, Dad, it’s Murder on the Orient Express, We all did it, all of us–including you.

Except it isn’t really Murder on the Orient Express, which we find out on the next page.  There’s just one killer, one killer and a suicide, which we’re simply told in a second confession scene because our detective is too dense to figure it out.  Then we’re left with one of those endings when the main character has to decide if he’ll turn in the  person he loves or let her go free.  We have to decide what he does ourselves because the author likes the cheap trick of an open ending.

That’s supposed to be deep and may pass for such in introductory creative writing courses where The Lemur probably would get a decent grade.  It’s the kind of book that should have been written as an exercise, a warm-up for the real thing and then discarded.  It’s not very good.  It shouldn’t have seen the light of day.  Benjamin Black has dug himself into a deep hole as far as I’m concerned.  Time to bury him and move on.

Which is too bad because the man can write:

There was something so sweetly sad about sex in the afternoon.  It was raining outside, and the pearly light falling down through the studio apartment’s big, slanted window was almost Irish.  He only ever felt really homesick when it rained.  He was thinking in a dreamy vacancy how much the sound that the computer keyboard reminded him of his long-dead granny clacking her dentures, and how Alison’s shapely back recalled Man Ray’s photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse posing as a violin.

Clearly John Banville can write. If only Benjamin Black has spent a little more time on his plotting.

3 thoughts on “The Worst Book I’ve Read in a Long Time or The Lemur by Benjamin Black

  1. You mentioned in an earlier post, and I thought “That’s too bad. Should I say something?” But I kept quiet. At least it is short. All clichés, nothing but clichés, and from a writer who is in his novels that are not shelved in the Mystery section a dedicated enemy of clichés. Clearly, he does not think this book counts.

    Does your edition explain anywhere that this novel was originally a serial, published in installments in The New York Times Magazine of all places? Something to read just before tackling the Sunday crossword.

  2. I still intend to read John Banville at some point. There is good writing here and there in The Lemur but you’re right. Cliche after cliche.

    I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more as a serial. To be honest, there really wasn’t much of a thread pulling the reader through, which a detective story ought to have.

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