Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Review: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

Web Goodhue is what many might refer to as a loser. A former schoolteacher turned full time slacker, Web divides his time between surviving off handouts and pissing off anyone he comes in contact with. Things begin to change rapidly, however, when his friend and roommate loses what remains of his patient understanding and forces him to take a job with a mutual acquaintance. This plunges Web into the bizarre and gruesome world of Crime Scene Cleaning, launching him on a frantic and brutal journey that will force him to examine his few crumbling relationships, re-evaluate his life, confront hidden memories of a traumatic past, and deliberate on the best way to clean brains and skull fragments out of shag carpeting.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is one of the few stand-alone novels of Charlie Huston, the popular crime fiction author responsible for the successful Hank Thompson and Joe Pitt series. Departing once again from his popular serialized novels, Huston has created a wonderfully captivating story of self-discovery and evaluation with enough criminally insane characters and violently graphic murder scenes to please even the most jaded pulp fan.

The majority of the book’s success rests on the shoulders of the main character Web, whose first-person narration guides us through his personal journey. Web is the perfect anti-hero, displaying anti-social behaviors and poorly motivated decision-making that repel the thought of emulation, yet with a level of self-awareness and confusion that never risks alienating the reader. The slow reveal of the source of his post-traumatic disorder not only explains his behavior without excusing it, but its revelation is a surprisingly human and believable scene, and a true testament to Huston’s mastery of true-to-life dialogue and the frailty of human emotion. Also, his sudden relationship with the daughter of the suicide victim of his first crime scene cleanup, while convenient for the advancement of the story, is far from contrived or easily explained away.

Nevertheless, this is a gritty crime story, and Web’s road to emotional discovery is heavily paved with ruthless killers, street-hardened hoods, delusional criminals, and a wide variety of inventively graphic deaths. The title of the book refers to the newly chosen career path of Web’s, Crime Scene Cleanup, and a good portion of the story dwells on the darkly humorous potential inherent in scraping up and hauling away the aftermath of violent crimes and messy suicides. From detailed explanations of how to get blood off wallpaper to the results of committing suicide with a pipe-bomb suppository, Mystic Art dwells in so much bloody minutiae that the reader will occasionally wish they had a hazmat suit of their own. Of course, this sort of detail could easily devolve into a tedious grocery list of factual data reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk’s works, but Huston never comes close to overwhelming or boring his audience with the research he obviously put into the novel.

Charlie Huston is well known for delivering top-notch work, and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is no different. It is an unflinching exercise in gallows humor and crime drama with a solid plot and remarkable yet wholly believable characters. Not only will you enjoy it, but you might even learn how to detect blood splatter on upholstery.

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