Prosecco Notwithstanding

Tobias Gregory

  • The Lemur by Benjamin Black
    Picador US, 144 pp, $13.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 312 42808 2

Auden remarked that to read pornography in any other way than as a sexual stimulus is to be bored to tears. Crime fiction is similar: you read it for the story, and literary pretensions are unwelcome. The right style is spare, understated. You don’t want philosophy, psychology, political reflections, purple passages or digressions on the Battle of Waterloo. You don’t want displays of authorial learning, other than accurate-sounding details about the CIA, offshore banks or organised crime. Scenery and portraits should be sketched, not painted. You don’t even want long sex scenes – they’re best interrupted by a midnight phone call or a sharp knock at the door.

When a serious writer attempts a crime novel, the danger is that he will yield to the temptation to make it literary – either because habits are hard to break, or because he thinks he can write a thriller that is also a work of art. John Banville, to his credit, understands that crime fiction is only crime fiction. The Lemur, his third book under the pen name Benjamin Black, is a slim, efficient novel, elegantly done as such things go, in which literary pretensions are largely resisted and the proper conventions observed. There is the murder. There is the Beretta. There are multiple suspects. There is the CIA connection. There is sinister big money. There is the hard-boiled New York cop. There is another mysterious death – a suicide, or was it? – twenty years earlier. There are family secrets. There is a beautiful wife and a beautiful mistress. There are colourful minor characters. There is whisky before noon. There are cigarettes, lots of them, but times have changed even in the world of noir. After the protagonist, John Glass, sneaks a smoke in his 39th-floor Manhattan office, he then spends a paragraph trying to dispose of the butt; when he lights up on the street he gets a lecture from the cop: ‘“You should quit,” he said. “Believe me, it makes a difference. Even in the sack – you got more breath.”’

If an old-school noir hero would not fish his unflushable cigarette stub out of a toilet bowl, wrap it in tissue, and return it to his office wastepaper basket, that is the point: Glass is not hard-boiled. Like Max Morden, the narrator of Banville’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, he is a middle-aged, second-rate Irish intellectual who lives off his wife’s money. Glass is a journalist, or was, but not the investigative sort; he used to write opinion pieces, ‘not so much reports as extended and passionately fashioned jeremiads’, filed from trouble spots around the globe. Now, having married the daughter of Big Bill Mulholland, CIA agent turned communications mogul, he lives on easy street. His redoubtable father-in-law has offered him a million-dollar commission to write his biography, but Glass, having accepted the assignment at his wife’s urging, is having trouble getting started. He is afraid of Big Bill, knows that the old man expects him not to dig for dirt, and in any case he doesn’t appear to know how to do this; but neither can he bring himself to produce the authorised biography Big Bill is waiting for. So he gets in touch with a shady young ‘researcher’, the lemur of the title. The lemur, who seems to know a good deal about the Mulholland family already, gets to work. A week later he phones Glass to tell him he’s discovered something big, big enough that Glass will surely be willing to pay big to keep the secret in the family. Then the lemur is found shot through the eye.

Glass’s wife, Louise, Big Bill’s daughter, is formidable in her own right. She’s gorgeous, of course, tall and thin, ‘48 but looked thirty’, with elegant manners, firm handwriting, a top-drawer education – ‘her three years of study in England, a postgraduate course among the Oxford logical positivists, had honed her diction to a gleaming keenness’ – and the right clothes for all occasions. ‘Today she wore a dark green suit and a Philip Treacy hat that was a minuscule square of black velvet topped with a few wisps of what might be spun sugar.’ ‘She was wearing the grey silk kimono that some Japanese bigwig presented to her when she visited Kyoto as a UN Special Ambassador for culture.’ ‘She was wearing what he thought of as her Jean Seberg outfit: black pedal-pushers, black and white striped matelot top, a short red silk scarf knotted at her throat.’ ‘Louise was wearing knee-high black leather boots and a tweed cape over a heavy Arran sweater.’ ‘She was wearing a little green coat tightly belted at the waist and her spun-sugar Philip Treacy hat.’ When she’s not getting dressed, Louise directs the Mulholland Trust, which involved itself in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Glass loved her once, but their marriage has been passionless for some time. He stays with her for the money, and she stays with him in order not to risk offending her father, whose famous rectitude includes a ‘bitter disapproval of divorce’:

He wondered why she had tolerated him for so long, and why she went on tolerating him. Was it simply fear of another divorce and her father’s rage? No doubt it was. He was perfectly capable, was Big Bill, of cutting off her inheritance. So much would go … if those millions went – not just the house in the Hamptons, the rooftop suite at the George V in Paris, the account at Asprey’s in London, but most important, control of the Mulholland Trust. That was what Louise prized most; that was the future.

Glass spends his happiest moments with his mistress, Alison, a young Irish painter, ‘very dark of hair and very pale of skin’. Both wife and mistress spend most of the novel irritated or exasperated with Glass, and it’s not entirely clear how he managed to attract these two splendid women in the first place.

New York City in The Lemur is upmarket, service economy Manhattan. There is a lot of dining out at ‘depressingly fashionable’ restaurants, where flutes of Prosecco are brought unasked (Glass likes the gesture, though Louise finds Prosecco ‘common’), where affairs are conducted over Chilean sea bass and Friulian Tocai. At the Glasses’ apartment on the Upper East Side, Lincoln the doorman tips his cap, and Clara the maid serves coffee: ‘Real strong, Mr Glass, like you like it.’ Noir typically introduces a city’s underworld as well as its high-rent districts, but there’s not much underworld here; perhaps there’s not much underworld left in Manhattan these days. The Lemur’s extras are smiling waitresses, not seen-it-all barkeeps; its anonymous New York voices say ‘yes-how-may-I help-you?’ not ‘how you doin’?’; its background noise is the hiss of espresso machines. If you don’t catch a ride to the Hamptons with your father-in-law in his chopper you must endure the discomforts of the Hampton Jitney. The novel’s frequent name-checks of branded luxury goods made a nice fit for the advertisers in the New York Times Magazine, in whose pages The Lemur was first published serially earlier this year. Glass, however, has never felt at ease in this environment, or so he tells himself. He has had some time to get used to it, but remains conscious that he is not to the manner born:

It occurred to Glass that what he had admitted a moment ago was true, that he was coarse, compared to all this that Louise had set in place, the elegant table, the soft lights, the fine wines and delicate food, the expensively simple furniture, the Balthus drawing and the Giacometti figurine, the leather-bound books, the white-clad maid, the Glenn Gould tape playing softly in the background – all the rich, muted, exquisitely tasteful life that she had assembled for them. Yes, he fitted ill, here; he had tried, but he fitted ill.

‘He had it all, and yet … ’ is a useful formula in novels of this kind. It gives the author scope to indulge readers’ vicarious interest in the lifestyles of the rich and powerful, while leaving us with the satisfying impression that the rich and powerful are no happier than anyone else. ‘And yet … ’ is a good way of getting a thriller plot started; it gives a motive for the misstep from which trouble begins. Since Banville is a sophisticated novelist, he provides a cogent set of reasons for Glass’s particular case of ‘and yet … ’: residual class tension, midlife ennui and regret at having sold out to his father-in-law, betraying whatever talent and integrity he once had. Max Morden in The Sea has come to terms with his own mediocrity, but Glass (a few years younger, or so it feels) remains subject to misgivings; he may know he is a fraud and a parasite, but he hasn’t yet learned to accept it. The characterisation is deft. One can see the reason a man in Glass’s circumstances might find it valuable to retain a sense of alienation, like the half-strategic trace of a working-class accent. Though he wouldn’t say so, it reinforces his self-respect to feel that, Prosecco notwithstanding, he remains a Dubliner ‘coarse as cabbage’. The discomfort makes sense too. It must be easier to enjoy money if you’ve made it yourself.

One literary pitfall The Lemur does not altogether avoid is that of self-consciousness. Characters in the novel tend to register their awareness of clichés as they utter them. Big Bill Mulholland is ‘such a CIA cliché, I wonder if the CIA didn’t invent him’. ‘It was simply that: he had burned out. An old story. He was a walking cliché.’ ‘There were people in what Glass the cliché-hater told himself he must remember not to call the highest echelons of the West’s intelligence services who swore by Big Bill’s probity; there were also those who swore at it.’ ‘The unwritten book: another cliché.’ ‘Sometimes I think you’re living in a play, spouting clichés someone else has written for you.’ ‘It’s a cliché, I know, that women will love a man who can make them laugh.’ Whether intentional or not, this pattern comes across as a small tic of authorial embarrassment, as if Banville wants his more sophisticated readers at least to know that he knows he’s slumming. Perhaps there’s another nod to those readers in the characters’ names: does Big Bill Mulholland allude to William Mulholland, the Belfast-born engineer who built the Los Angeles Aqueduct, or to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive? But these things are not a major distraction. The plot thickens as it should, and enough ends are left loose that the story could readily be continued. Perhaps another instalment is in the works.