“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 a “fabled injustice” that 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.