Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

Huston is the author of the Joe Pitt series of hard-boiled vampire mysteries -- which bear about as much similarity to the usual vampire-fucking urban fantasy book as Mickey Spillane does to Agatha Christie -- of a well-regarded novel called The Shotgun Rule, of another trilogy of mysteries, and of some comics, including a recent Moon Knight run. I'd originally thought this was a standalone novel, but I've since seen some interviews with Huston that make it clear that it begins a new series.

And, before I go further, I have to digress on the subject of "crime fiction." I'm not as well-versed in the worlds of crime and detection as I have been in those of skiffy and fantasy, and had a mental definition of "crime fiction" that was limited and mostly historic: the kinds of novels that Jim Thompson and David Goodis wrote, noir tales of crime and criminals in which things didn't necessarily all go wrong, but that was always the way to bet. (Richard Stark, and I'm sure others, have written novels like that more recently, but it's not a big piece of the mystery/thriller world.) But I've recently learned that "crime fiction" is generally used these days as an analog to "speculative fiction" -- as a wide umbrella term to draw together a range of different works that share some similarities, but also have major differences.

And it's good that I learned this, because The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is definitely a work of crime fiction -- a good one, too -- but it's not a traditional mystery of any subgenre I'm familiar with, nor does it fit easily into the thriller category. So it's nice to know that the bucket for books like this already exists, and that it subsumes all of those more specific buckets. It's also good to see that the contemporary market for crime/mystery/thriller books is large and encompassing enough that things outside of those obvious, old genre paths are that important, and can be as commercially successful as Mystic Arts looks to be.

Mystic Arts is one of those "damaged guy gets better" books -- Webster Filmore Goodhue was until recently a schoolteacher in LA, but has spent the last year sponging off his tattoo-artist roommate Chev and pissing off every single person he comes into contact with after some horribly nasty event that he won't talk, or even think, about. The book is in his voice and from his point of view, so his deep assholishness is mitigated somewhat by his deep self-loathing, but -- don't get me wrong -- he's still a huge asshole. In fact, Web Goodhue is the most negative and offputting protagonist of any novel I've seen in many years.

Since he's reached the end of his friends' and family's patience, Web gets a job with Clean Team, a LA-area trauma cleanup company. (Making Mystic Arts one of two major entertainment vehicles about that job in 2009, along with the movie Sunshine Cleaning. Must be something in the Pine-Sol.) As Huston depicts it, that business is more competitive than you would expect, and Web's dead-man-walking demeanor and punch-me-hard-right-now conversational style leads to various crime-novel complications, and, eventually, to Web starting to get somewhat better. (And to the reader learning what that traumatic event in his past was, which explains a bit of why he's such an asshole, though it doesn't go all the way -- then again, the Huston protagonists I've run across have been medium-grade assholes to begin with, which may explain more.)

Huston's habit of setting off dialogue with dashes instead of quotation marks still comes off as MFA-level affectation, as if he's trying to prove that he's really not one of those grubby genre writers, but a serious litterateur. But any writer this strong and entertaining can be forgiven one affectation, and this is Huston's. It could have been much worse. If Mystic Arts does turn into a series, I'll be interested to see what happens next to Web in his gruesome new career. If not, Mystic Arts makes a fine standalone novel about one man re-finding his humanity while scrubbing down blood and bone fragments.

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