The Crime of Julian Wells, by Thomas H. Cook

How have I not come across award-winning mystery writer Thomas H. Cook before? True, this book is labeled a thriller, not a genre I usually read, but it unrolls at such a deliberate and elegant pace that it turns out to be exactly my cup of tea.

Philip Anders, a middle-aged literary critic, is shocked by the death of his best friend, the successful writer Julian Wells, at the home Julian shared with his sister in Montauk on Long Island. Though the two have known each other since childhood, Philip cannot imagine why Julian would commit suicide. He tells Loretta that he wishes he'd been there to stop him, but is flummoxed when he realises that, not knowing the cause of Julian's despair, he doesn't know what he could have said to stay his friend's hand.

To answer that question, Philip begins retracing Julian's footsteps, trying to learn where things went sideways. Although Julian wrote true crime books about history's greatest monsters, serial killers like Andre Chikatilo and Countess Báthory, immersing himself in their darkness, there is no easy answer, no new disappointment to explain his action.

Philip starts to question his own understanding, recalling that he has never understood the dedication in Julian's first book to “Philip, sole witness to my crime.” It was written after the time the two men spent together in Argentina toward the end of that country's Dirty War. The gay adventure had turned dark when their tour guide, Marisol, disappeared. The two searched unsuccessfully for her. Despite the ugliness and atrocities of the time, she seemed so transparently innocent of political involvement that there had to be another explanation.

As some of us were discussing at my poetry reading this week, one of the tasks of middle age seems to be to discover or refine the narrative of your life. Real life is a crazy jumble of false starts, accidents, and serendipity. As we blunder through, trying sometimes just to make it to the end of the day, or at most till Friday, we construct a sort of narrative of cause and effect, intention and resolution. Nearing the last part of life, many feel the need to smooth the rough patches and fit the outliers into the pattern. Julian's death pushes Philip to do just that, and he begins pursuing Julian through his books.

The writing is masterly; the pacing magnificent. I love an intelligent read like this, one that challenges my preconceptions and delivers a satisfying conclusion. My only quibble is a personal one: I hated the descriptions of the terrible crimes committed by Julian's real-life subjects. Call me lily-livered, but it seems to me that these days gore is way overdone. Television dramas complete to show the most grisly remains, the worst tortures, the most terrifying serial killers. Actually, though, as Hitchcock showed us, the most terrifying moments are the most banal: a footstep outside the shower curtain, a game by two college students, the lit window of a passing train. In retrospect I understand why the carnage here is necessary to the story; I just don't like it.

I do like the book, though; it is easily one of the best books I've read all year. It made me questions and rethink some basic precepts. Philip quotes his friend: “‘There is no more haunting story than that of an unsolved crime.'” Truly this is a story that will haunt me.

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