To know the world, one must travel it in the third-class carriage, and I had little doubt that that was surely how Julian had come to know it. He was one of those for whom the usual comforts meant nothing. If the water was yellow, the walls laced with mold, if the sink was ringed in rust, or even if there was no sink at all, if the mosquito net was ripped and the cloaca full, it was the same to Julian. The deeds that drew him were the darkest we know, and he’d pursued them with the urgency of a lover.
From his first trip abroad, I’d had little doubt that he would remain an expatriate all his life, which made it all the stranger that, in the end – that terrible, lonely end – he had died at home. (page 3)
Thomas H. Cook is an award winning novelist with over twenty books to his name and yet I had never heard of him before I read a review of his latest novel, The Crime of Julian Wells – a novel about the aftermath of the suicide of the writer Julian Wells. Wells, an expatriate, returns to his childhood home and his sister and kills himself. Loretta, the sister meets with Julian’s oldest friends, Phillip Anders, a literary critic and together they try to make sense of what has happened. This is not a mystery that figures out the how; instead Cook concentrates on the “why” – why would an individual choose this path and the “what” – what did we do or not do to contribute to this death.
Ironically, Julian specialized in writing books about the darkness of the human soul focusing on horrific crimes of mass murder – not killers like Dahmer or Gacy. Instead, Julian traveled the world in search of depraved indifference to life – killers such as Andrei Chikatilo (who also served as the basis of Tom Rob Smith’s novel Child 44) and Paul Voulet who butchered his way through large sections of Africa. Jillian immerses himself in the world occupied by his subject reliving every moment he can sinking into the depths of depravity in order to fully convey what happened to the reader. As his books defy genres, Julian is not a rousing success as a writer but seemed satisfied with his work. Loretta feels he was planning another book set in Argentina, a place that Philip and Julian visited together after college during Argentina’s Dirty War.
Philip wonders if a clue to Julian’s death lies in his books and he travels to each location retracing footsteps, meeting people Julian met in search of “Julian’s Crime”, a reference in the dedication of Julian’s first book. As Phillip investigates we learn more about Julian as well as more about these crimes he wrote about. Each bit of information – both the personal and the collective – becomes a piece of one of two different puzzles. The first puzzle reflects Julian himself as a person and the second reflects the larger idea of the banality of evil.
I have to admit that I was more intrigued by the second puzzle. I was fascinated by Cook’s discussions of Julian’s work. Some of the murders I have heard of but most I have not and I would make list of things to look up on the internet. At first I would look up each time I came across a tidbit I wanted to know more of but that was making for a very disjointed reading experience. So I would save all the extra reading for a single point each day moving from link to link.
As for Julian’s puzzle, it wasn’t as fascinating for me. I determined the general gist of the “crime” fairly early on – although Cook threw in a few twists that I had not anticipated. While Philip’s journey made sense structurally – it wasn’t the part of the book that kept me going. I do appreciate how the author manages to tie the two puzzles together and I thought the novel had a very clever construction. And the writing is very well done with every word counting. I like Cook’s style at lot. I just like one puzzle more than the other and I am left with the lingering idea I was suppose to like the other puzzle more.
What I appreciate most is how Cook put deceit at the heart of this novel – deceit and the impact of deceit on both the deceiver and those being deceived. And with deceit comes betrayal – betrayal of others as well as betrayal of self. How does one come to terms with all this? At the end of the book, the personal question of why Julian would commit suicide is answered. The greater question, the more public question of why evil exists in the world is not and so I, as the reader, was left pondering long after the book was finished.