The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

“The road to moral horror is never direct. There are always ramps and stairs, corridors, and tunnels, the secret chamber forever concealed from those who would be appalled by what they found there.”

I get a lot of snooty looks when people ask me what I am reading and I reply ‘crime fiction.’ That’s not the only type of novel I read, but it seems inevitable that I have a crime novel in my hand when someone asks me that question. I also get a range of snotty replies which range from: “oh … I don’t like wasting my time on that sort of book,” (like I’m reading porno) to “You should read something worthwhile. I wouldn’t waste my time on something like that.” Whatever. Up Yours. I read what I want to read.

But once in a while, I come across a fellow crime reader and we have a nice little chat about our favourite sort of crime novels. After all, there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ crime novel–that’s a huge umbrella term. Crime novels run the gamut from cozies set in picturesque, quaint English villages to very violent, heavily detailed novels about predators and their sick pastimes. I don’t care for cozy mysteries but neither do I like to wallow in torture details. Give me a crime novel that teaches me something and stretches the genre into something special, and that brings me to The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook. Is this a crime novel? Well the word is in the title, so crime is definitely part of the equation, but the novel is much, much more than that. It’s also an exploration of the nature of guilt, and on a larger scale, a treatise on the basest aspects of human nature. Thomas H. Cook has a reputation for writing cerebral crime novels with a strong psychological component, and that description is certainly well-deserved in The Crime of Julian Wells.

The book begins with the suicide of middle-aged American author Julian Wells. He leaves no note–no clues as to why he chose to kill himself on this day, in this fashion, and as is usually the case with suicides, family and friends are left to put together the pieces as they try to understand what happened and whether or not they failed in some way.

Julian, a writer with a respectable reputation occasionally lived at Montauk with his widowed sister, Loretta. The rest of the time, he spent either travelling the world researching his non-fiction books and articles or writing in a rented garret in Pigalle. Loretta, and Julian’s friend, literary critic Philip are the two people Julian left behind. After talking about Julian’s last weeks, Loretta and Philip identify a few peculiarities in his behaviour: a cancelled trip, unusual agitation, and a circled place on a map–the Argentinian village of Clara Vista right next to the border with Paraguay. Stunned by Julian’s death, Philip begins to question all of his memories and conversations with Julian. He is drawn to solving the mystery behind Julian’s suicide which he begins to believe is somehow connected to a month-long trip the two men took to Argentina thirty years previously.

Philip questions whether Julian committed suicide due to his prolonged exposure to depressing subjects. After all, he’d spent a lifetime delving into the darkest deeds of humankind.  With each book, Julian immersed himself in the crimes under consideration, and according to Loretta, “he was like a man in a locked room, trying to get out.”  Julian’s books never followed a template. His first book was The Tortures of Cuenca (about afabled injusticethat took place in Spain 1911), and there was also a study of Gille de Rais, The Terror, and a book about the crimes of Countess Bathory, The Tigress. Julian also wrote about serial killer, Henri Landru, the crimes of Paul Voulet, and the horrendous massacre at Oradour in 1944. Julian’s latest book, six years in the making and to be published posthumously, is The Commissar, the story of Russian serial killer Chikatilo. Loretta feels Julian’s constant exposure to some of the worst human behaviour cost her brother dearly and that “each book was like a nail in his coffin.” And our narrator agrees:

I thought of how he’d spent his last six years following the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo’s path through countless dismal towns, sleeping in the same railway stations, eating black bread and cheese, eying the vagabond children who had been Chikatilo’s prey, becoming him, as Julian always seemed to do while writing about such villains.

Philip’s father, a retired state department official, doesn’t believe that Julian was ‘tainted’ by his work, but rather that he had “morbid” tendencies. Was Julian’s suicide the result of 30 years of researching the lives of psychopaths and their victims? In the end, was all that darkness too much for Julian to absorb? Or was there something behind Julian’s obsession with the many faces of evil and his very particular interest in disguise and deceit? There seemed to be some desperate need behind Julian’s work to explore and understand cruelty that had nothing to do with his writing career or selling novels. Julian’s work seemed integral to his character: 

The deeds that drew him were the darkest that we know, and he’d pursued them with the urgency of a lover.

The Crime of Julian Wells takes us to Pigalle, London, Moscow, and Argentina as Philip retraces Julian’s career, but all roads lead back to Argentina and Philip and Julian’s vacation during the years of that country’s Dirty War. Along the way, we meet some very Graham Greenesque characters from Julian’s shady underworld: a hearty but suspicious former KGB agent, and René, Julian’s liason in France.

The Crime of Julian Wells narrowly misses being sublime, and its one, fault, and I hesitate to write that word as I enjoyed the novel a great deal, can be found in the character of Philip. He’s Julian’s doppelgänger, and yet he’s also a blank slate in many ways. While he’s necessary to the plot’s structure and revelations, he’s not that interesting a character in his own right, and so he acts as a device that folds back the layers of the past. In spite of this, The Crime of Julian Wells is a wonderful crime novel for many reasons. For all the anti-crime novel snobs out there, with allusions to Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, author Thomas H. Cook shows just how serious and philosophical a crime novel can be. The characters aren’t solving crimes as much as they try to find the answers to haunting questions concerning the nature of guilt, the utter randomness of cruelty, how some people can sleep well, eat, and laugh after horrendous acts of cruelty while others can never expiate their guilt, and how easy it is for someone to simply disappear….

For here was Julian’s sense of life’s cruel randomness, life a lottery upon whose uncontrollable outcome everything depended, how because this streetcar stopped on this particular corner at this particular moment, nothing for this particular human being would ever be the same again.

Review copy.

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38 Comments

Filed under Cook Thomas H., Fiction

38 responses to “The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

  1. Brian Joseph

    I believe that, like several other genres, crime fiction is often worthwhile literature that can be both entertaining as well saying a lot about the world. Though I have read few of these books, it seems like many of the works that you read fit the above. I do want to delve into some of these books myself soon. I think that I can say similar things about the science fiction genre, of which I have read quite a bit.

    The quote that you opened this post with is phenomenal.This book sounds that it is philosophically and thematically deep. It is too bad about some character shortcomings that you allude to.

    • Yes, Brian, this is a very thematically rich book. I also enjoyed the way the author introduced real-life crime into the story. I’d never heard of The Monster of the Andes, for example, Oradour, or the Russian serial killer mentioned in the review. I found myself asking ‘are these serial killers real? Could these men really have killed THAT MANY people?’ and then a quick hop over to wikipedia confirmed the answers.

      The mingling of fact and fiction added depth to the book in a way that other crime novels miss–plus it brought in the idea that we (non-serial killers) cannot really imagine what monsters walk among us.

  2. Tom Cook

    I am Thomas H. Cook (Tom), the author of THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS, and I just wanted to thank you for writing such a lovely and generous review of my book. I agree with you that crime fiction need not be silly fiction, and that it can bear the burden imposed by the weightiest of ideas. I keep trying to write it as well as I can, and I truly appreciate it when someone notices the effort.

  3. Tom Cook

    Lovely to hear back from you. Try RED LEAVES because it is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS.

  4. The exploration of guilt reminds me of Strangers on a Train. Of course, you already know that I don’t consider crime fiction as a minor genre.
    You wondered if the killers are real? Well, yes for the French ones (Gilles de Rais, Landru, Paul Voulet, although I didn’t know that one). The massacre at Oradour was in 1944, during WWII, it was an awful thing. I see Julian explores all kinds of killers: the official ones with a uniform and the serial killers.
    If I understand correctly, the underlying question is: was he depressed by his job or did he choose this job because he was attracted to the morbid any way. I think that working on that kind of subject (like working on the Shoah) must do something to you, even if you don’t acknowledge it)

    • yes: that is the underlying question. Was he depressed (to the point of suicide) by what he’d seen or was he just morbid to begin with.

      I hadn’t heard of Oradour before and found photos of the site on the internet. A baby was baked in the oven… and in another instance an SS officer turned the other way while 3 children escaped. It seemed to be one of those moments when insanity and barbarity was unleashed. In Julian’s book, he focused on the victims and not on the killers. He states a very interesting reason for that which I won’t go into as it’s another clue to the mystery.

      I’d heard of Landru (you mentioned that I might read a book about him since I am interested in French crime). I’d heard of Bathory and the controversy as to whether or not the tales are true. I’d never heard of Voulet either but coincidentally I just started a book about men running amok in the Congo.

  5. Tom Cook

    I am so pleased that you are going back to look at things like Oradour.
    You would be surprised how often, when I am in France, I find people who have never heard of it. The day I visited, no one else was there, and it is an entire village kept exactly as it was after the massacre, thus a very imposing memorial.

  6. It’s a very strange reaction to be so opposed to crime fiction. The genre is vast as you pointed out and even the subgenres cover a wide range. And there are decidedly books which are as literary as any other.
    This sounds, like a book I would like a lot. I hadn’t heard of the author before. I don’t think I would have a problem with Philip being a bit bland. Isn’t that often the case when the main charcater is actually absent because he is already dead or just not there?

    • Yes Caroline, it’s a very Jamesian technique to have a blank slate narrator.

      There’s a lot of crime fiction out there, and as you know, there’s a range of quality. I’ve seen books by this author and passed them by. I’m thinking this must have been due to the covers. The cover of the book under review is intriguing, but many other covers make the books seem to have that slasher quality, and I now realise that I got the wrong impression.

  7. I just realized that I actually have Places in the Dark. I bought it after having read a great review of it on “A Work in Progress” a while back.

  8. Tom Cook

    Yes, the British paperback covers for THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR and BREAKHEART HILL both has this blood look, which was completely the wrong message, as neither books is violent in any way. Thanks for giving me a shot, despite the cover

    • I’ll be honest, I’ve passed your books by because the covers sent a different message. My mistake, my loss…The cover for The Crime of Wells nails the novel’s feel, I think.

      • Tom Cook

        I’m not surprised. Some have been just awful. And readers who pick my books up thinking they are slasher books are invariably going to be very disappointed. So I never gain a new reader by that method. It’s crazy, that kind of one-shot marketing.

        • I suppose you don’t get much control over the covers. I agree–the one shot is crazy. Esp. when a reader passes books and has an assumption as to the content which isn’t correct.

          • Tom Cook

            Exactly. They did the same with the cover of THE LAST TALK WITH LOLA FAYE in Engliand. It looks like a sex book, with LOLA FAYE, who is in her late forties, looking like a teenage hottie. Ridiculous.

            • I’m very curious about book covers. I don’t want to sound like a smug French, but they are much sober in France than they are in the US or the UK. Don’t you, writer, have your say about it? Sometimes they’re so far from the book that they catch the bad readers, attract bad reviews and can only lead to disappointment. It’s not good for the writer, obviously but what’s in it for the publisher?

              • Tom Cook

                No, Emma, the writer has little say. I do very well in France, but as to the French covers, sometimes they are more sober, sometimes not. The cover to RED LEAVES was not so good in France, I thought, while the cover for that book in the US was beautiful. I think my current French publisher, Le Seuil, does lovely covers, better than the US or England in my opinion. I also have a wonderful translator for my novels in France. I can read French far better than I can speak it, thus I can tell that M. Loupat’s translations are beautiful.

                • I went over to Amazon FR and took a look at the covers which do, in general, seem to be better. What’s interesting there is that that the novels are linked to those of Jim Thompson and Charles Williams–both are favourites of mine.

              • A reporter told me that somone else wrote the headlines to his stories and he often loathed them.

                I’m thinking that publishers must think that the cover they selected would sell books. That or they know the artist.

            • I just took a look at the UK cover for Lola and I much prefer the American. The cover for The City When it Rains is great. Not so sure about Master of the Delta. Looks like a blend of Gone with the Wind and a ghost story.

              • Tom Cook

                Right about the American cover for MASTER. The English cover was better, and the French cover (Les Lecons du Mal) was the best.

  9. Tom Cook

    Obviously “both had,” rather than “both has.” That’s the problem with posting too quickly. Sorry for that type.

  10. leroyhunter

    Sounds great Guy, I’m sold.

  11. This does sound very good.

    The idea that crime can’t deal with serious issues, with psychological depth and subtle argument, is an absolute nonsense which anyone with a momentary familiarity with the genre would know not to be true. I have no problem at all with people saying SF/Crime/whatever doesn’t appeal to me. Tastes vary. To say though why do you read that stuff is an illiterate question.

    I’ll take a note of this. I have too much on the TBR pile to get it immediately, but definitely worth noting.

  12. Sweet Fanny Adams

    I love your reviews (even if you don’t include porno!). I recently discovered Ray Banks – ‘Donkey Punch’ etc and I’m really enjoying his Manchester based scallies.

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