A glimpse of Banville through Glass

 

CRIME: The Lemur by Benjamin BlackPicador, 185pp. £12.99

THE ART TO giving a good speech, we are told, is to have a very strong beginning and a very strong ending, and to ensure that the interval between the two is as brief as possible. John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, seems to have taken this advice and applied it to his new novella, The Lemur, which indeed has a beginning and an ending but a marked lack of what writers and readers alike call "a middle". As a result, despite its brevity - it runs to little more than 20,000 words or so - there are stretches during which nothing much of any kind happens, at length. Ostensibly set in a present-day New York by Dominck Dunne out of Vanity Fair, it all seems to unfold in a strange overheated 1950s dreamworld, like a post-war HM Tennent drawing-room drama, replete with doting mothers and closeted sons, where tightly wound characters reprove each other in brittle tones for their use of slang:

"How was the trip?"

"Hideous, as usual."

"Billuns came out by chopper. You could have come with him."

"For god's sake, Louise. The 'chopper'!"

The plot is straightforward: Dylan Riley, the lemur of the title, is hired by John Glass, a burnt-out Irish journalist unhappily married to Louise, the daughter of the legendary ex-CIA man and communications mogul Big Bill Mulholland, to assist him in writing Mulholland's biography. Riley soon turns up dead, shot through the eye. Did Riley stumble on a dark secret from Mullholland's past, perhaps to do with the alleged suicide of his former partner, Charles Varriker? Once established, the plot is referred to but not advanced until the end, when, thanks to an NYPD detective content to impersonate a bumbling village policeman, the way is left clear for Glass to tie things up.

The Lemur was originally serialised in the New York Times, and if you didn't know that the Times insists on seeing the complete work before printing the first instalment, you'd wonder whether it had been written episodically and published here without re-reading. The problems centre chiefly on the mysterious Mr Glass. We are told Glass was a famous foreign correspondent who sent "passionately fashioned jeremiads" from Tiananmen Square, Rwanda and Srebrenica; he was published by the Guardian, Rolling Stone and the New York Review. Now, it appears, he is reduced to flacking for his filthy rich in-laws in order to sustain his parasitical Central Park West and Hamptons lifestyle. But it's difficult to reconcile that Glass with the acutely self-conscious fellow through whose compulsively fastidious eyes we view the story. This Glass has "an instinctive dislike of people who wore T-shirts with smart things written on them". He seems to be unsure of the precise function of computers, and later to be unaware of the development of the laptop, even though he has one resting on his desk. He "did not possess even a mobile phone". "He secretly hated telephones, because they frightened him."

This legendary journalist, whose work everyone has been reading for years, can't keep clear in his mind the distinction between MI5 and MI6; when the cops haul him in for questioning, he thinks the police captain has the face of an El Greco martyr; his only standard of comparison for the kind of busy police station he must have been in a thousand times is camp cinematic: "Glass idly entertained the fancy that if it were viewed from above, all this apparently random toing and froing would resolve into a series of patterns, forming and re-forming, as in a Busby Berkeley musical."

BETWEEN THE UNRELIABLE narrator and the copy editor falls the shadow. A third of the way in and you ask yourself what on earth is going on. Is this is all some kind of post-modern joke, a satire on character consistency? Is the name John Glass significant? Is he transparently the author? He is certainly (forgive me) a pain. Then you read the following: "He was thinking in a dreamy vacancy . . . how Alison's shapely back recalled Man Ray's photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse posing as a violin." And once you've stopped laughing, the penny drops. We know who John Glass is now. He's a character in a John Banville novel. This is not Banville writing as Black, this is Black writing as Banville, and John Glass is that familiar figure: Banville Man. Banville Man, furrowed brow wreathed in smoke, forever caught between a swoon and a sneer; Banville Man, the rumpled aesthete whose exquisite nerves are ever besieged by the crass and the vulgar ("For God's sake, Louise. The 'chopper'!"); Banville Man, whose loathing of the hell that is other people is surpassed only by his loathing of himself.

And in the dessicated murk of a John Banville novel, where no one expects much by way of character or action, where a bogus backstory is the least you might imagine a man to have, that's all par for the course.

John Glass's misfortune is to find himself in a Benjamin Black tale, where we have the right to demand of him (a) that he be a plausible, realistic character and (b) that he actually do something. Instead he flounces about moaning and bickering and eating expensive meals and stepping out for cigarettes. Eventually he stumbles on the truth, but since, in the absence of any great distraction, we've had plenty of time to think along the way, we've probably beaten him to it.

Declan Hughes is a crime novelist and play wright. His latest novel, The Dying Breed, is published by John Murray