Serially thrilling

The serial novel conjures up images of a bygone century, of a time when Charles Dickens made his name by teasing out the life and death of Little Nell in monthly installments. But one need only look to the flurry of posts on Jacket Copy last month discussing the first installment of Denis Johnson’s serial noir novella “Nobody Move,” published in Playboy, to sense renewed interest in this supposedly dead format. More intriguing, however, is how mystery and thriller stories figure prominently in serial fiction’s current revival.

The format inched its way back to public consciousness with Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” and, more recently, Alexander McCall Smith’s “44 Scotland Street,” his daily serial of Edinburgh life that’s appeared in the Scotsman off and on since 2004. But when the New York Times Magazine introduced “Funny Pages” in 2005, crime and thriller writers such as Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard and Colin Harrison began flooding this new venue with new works published in weekly installments. Some, like Connelly’s “The Overlook” (Vision: 240 pp., $7.99 paper) and Ian Rankin’s “Doors Open” (available this fall from British publisher Orion), were expanded substantially upon publication as finished books; others, including Scott Turow’s “Limitations” (Picador: 198 pp., $13 paper) and Patricia Cornwell’s “At Risk” (Berkley: 304 pp., $7.99 paper), appeared in bookstores with only minor revisions.

Since then, the novel-by-installment has crossed over into broadsheets (Ronan Bennett’s “Zugzwang” appeared first in the Observer; Cornwell’s “The Front” began as a daily serial in the London Times; and the reader-authored “Birds of Paradise” appeared in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year), magazines (J. Robert Lennon’s “Happyland” in Harper’s; Walter Kirn’s “The Unbinding” in Slate) and other formats: Both Scott Sigler and Seth Harwood made their debut print novels available in podcast format first, and the International Thriller Writers Assn. recruited a number of writers to collaborate on the audio-only serial “The Chopin Manuscript.” Despite this proliferation, it’s too soon to say whether serial fiction has a permanent place in today’s literary culture or is destined to remain a gimmick, albeit one clothed in the garb of a challenge to force readers to turn pages even faster -- and wait longer for the finish line.

Which brings us to “The Lemur” (Picador: 132 pp., $13 paper), the bound version of Benjamin Black’s serial published in the New York Times Magazine over 13 weeks in late 2007 and early 2008. Black, of course, is the nom de noir of Booker Prize winner John Banville, and enough ink’s been spilled about his pseudonymous transformation into a crime writer -- especially after “Christine Falls,” Black’s excellent and moody debut, was nominated for the Edgar Award. But what bears repeating is that the structural rigors of the genre allow Banville to worry less about maintaining a sometimes claustrophobic style, freeing up Black to play with language under the guise of entertainment.

“Christine Falls” and its follow-up, “The Silver Swan,” take the initial step toward freedom of entertainment but are held in check by the setting (1950s Ireland) and the atmosphere (hints of Greek tragedy). “The Lemur,” on the other hand, isn’t quite good, clean, pulpy fun, but it’s as close as Black gets. The book’s opening line is an indication, describing Dylan Riley, the titular research assistant who will end up an unfortunate (but, in the tradition of Christie-esque British mysteries, somewhat deserving) victim of murder as “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.” The lemur appellation, given by Riley’s would-be boss and protagonist John Glass, is both appropriate -- “with that long neck and little head and those big, shiny eyes, [Riley] bore a strong resemblance to one of the more exotic rodents” -- and inappropriate, when Glass’ extramarital paramour points out that lemurs have no place in the rodent kingdom.

But Glass’ misplaced thinking is a metaphor for the whole book. He believes himself to be ambling along well in life when his former career as a journalist in demand is long over, fading into well-paid hackwork as the biographer of his former CIA spook father-in-law Big Bill Holland. Glass’ marriage to Louise (“forty-eight and looked thirty”) has dissipated to the point where he no longer loves her but admires her at a distance, allowing appearances to be kept up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side while he cavorts downtown with the lovely young Irishwoman Alison O’Keefe. And when Riley is shot to death, Glass reacts like a man under suspicion, covering his small secrets when far larger ones within his extended family are unmasked -- and force greater peril on all concerned. “He doesn’t understand,” taunts one character. “He’s just an old broken-down reporter who’s missed the story entirely.”

The story provides Black with a vehicle to demonstrate his familiarity with genre tropes -- Agatha Christie is the most overt influence, though the ghost of Georges Simenon’s romans dur also lingers -- but also seems to reflect “The Lemur’s” faux-serious and satiric tone. A subplot involving one of Big Bill’s rivals in espionage carries momentum but little else; Ms. O’Keefe’s femme fatale nature comes through in teasing Glass about his lack of familiarity with blogs; and the official investigation, conducted by one Captain Ambrose with “the face of an El Greco martyr” is many removes away from being perfunctory.

But who needs story when there are delicious descriptions of director John Huston’s house in Ireland, of sharp-featured faces and flashing eyes and of Glass researching his way through complex history? “Stumbling about in this bristling thicket of acronyms he felt like the dull but honest hero of a cautionary folktale, who must make his way through a maze of magical signs and indecipherable portents to the lair of the great wizard.” For Benjamin Black or John Banville, language is the end that justifies the literary means, regardless of format.

Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at Dark Passages appears monthly at