The Lemur, by Benjamin Black

Sick, dizzy and disillusioned in New York on the 39th floor
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The Independent Culture

John Banville is now well established in his supplementary career as a thriller writer. The Lemur is the third excursion for his alter ego Benjamin Black. Unlike its predecessors, it is set in present-day New York rather than 1950s Dublin. A novella rather than a novel, it has a new protagonist utterly unlike the shambling pathologist of Christine Falls and The Silver Swan. John Glass is an Irishman, a one-time crusading journalist and veteran of every major troublespot of the late 20th century. Now "burned out", he is about to start a biography – not a hagiography – of his rich, ex-CIA father-in-law, William ("Big Bill") Mulholland.

The book opens with an abrasive encounter between Glass and an odd-looking young man, Dylan Riley (the Lemur), whom Glass is interviewing as a possible research assistant. The two seem so out of sympathy that the first mystery is why they would consider a working relationship. Riley resents Glass's renunciation of his journalistic calling ("You used to be the real thing... A lot of us believed in you") and the main theme is announced: disillusionment.

Glass's life is drifting "in the doldrums": caustic wife, off-hand mistress, repellent stepson, overbearing father-in-law, unnerving working environment. The last is on the 39th floor of a building owned by Big Bill, complete with a plate-glass wall that makes Glass feel "sick and dizzy".

Sick and dizzy is only the start of it. Glass is afraid, not only of heights and walls, but of the telephone and his father-in-law. Unusually, for an ex-foreign correspondent of high reputation, he can't tell the difference between MI5 and MI6. He thinks a lemur a kind of rodent; and when summoned to a police station can come up with no more apt a description than that "it looked just as it would have in the movies".

An enigmatic New York cop comes into the picture. He is investigating the murder of Glass's research assistant, who, having tried a spot of blackmail, is promptly shot in the eye. What has the Lemur's research uncovered to warrant so precipitate a removal from the scene? The explanation is fairly predictable, while the author enjoys his jeu d'esprit, poking mild fun at the conventions of the genre. But what distinguishes The Lemur is its New York atmosphere – the "narrow strip of sky above Fifth Avenue", the "bluey-green tinge" of a spring day in Central Park.

Picador, £12.99

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