Wednesday, 7 January 2009

‘The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death’ – Charlie Huston (Ballantine Books)


When I first moved to London I took on a temp job updating, and closing down, files of people that had died in a particular London Borough and the local council were winding up their affairs. At least that’s what I thought at the time... It turned out that not only would I be looking at files but I would also be going into the houses of the (very) recently deceased to look for details of next of kin etc. One very hot July day, I was called upon to go into the house of a man who had been dead for about three weeks before anyone noticed the strange smell coming from his house, without a doubt the worst day of my working life... Reading ‘The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death’ gave me a real sense of déjà vu...

Charlie Huston has become one of a select group of authors where I will put down whatever I am currently reading to check out his latest book. This is primarily because of his excellent ‘Joe Pitt’ series but ‘The Shotgun Rule’ is also more than worth your time if you like crime fiction with a more than liberal dose of attitude. ‘Mystic Arts’ isn’t without its problems but its well worth a look...

A particularly traumatic event leads Webster Goodhue to quit his job as a teacher and swear never to ride the bus again. However, there’s only so much time anyone can reasonably get away with living rent free with your best friend and doing your level best to drive away all your other friends, it’s time Webster found himself a job. As luck would have it an opening suddenly appear with Clean Team, the people the police call if a stray dog has been hit by a train or a suicide ends up not being a clean cut as the victim intended. Soon enough, Webster finds himself knee deep in the excesses of humanity’s lowest moment but things are about to get worse still. Trauma cleaning is a booming industry and rival companies are not above a little sabotage in order to steal the trade. And then there’s the midnight call Webster gets from a client who has some ‘extra cleaning work’, in a motel, which she needs him to do for her. Where there’s a midnight rendezvous in a blood splattered motel room, gun toting cowboys will surely follow. What has Webster got himself into? And will he ever get himself out...?

‘The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death’ is one of those books that grabs you right from the first page and keeps a hold long after you’ve finished, that’s certainly what happened for me. The novel is brimming with a nervous energy that keeps the plot flowing and perfectly complements a cast of characters that are either on the wrong side of tracks or are teetering on the edge (numerous fire bombings, beatings and death by telephone should help you work out who’s who!) The story is told entirely from Webster’s perspective and Huston deftly treads a fine line between eliciting the reader’s sympathy, for a genuinely tortured soul, and making us wish that Webster would just shut the hell up and stop hurting the people who are trying to help him. As a result, Webster comes across as a well rounded character whose wisecracks very much maintain the reader’s interest over the course of the book.

‘The Mystic Arts’ sees Huston continue to write in that sparse (yet very intense) style where every word looks to have been carefully chosen for its place on the page. Not a word is wasted in a book that weighs in at a relatively slender three hundred and nineteen pages. However, as much as I enjoyed the book, I was left wishing that Huston had given himself a little more room to breathe and explore some of the supporting characters, showing us what makes them tick. We do get to find out more about Soledad, Webster’s midnight assignation, but only because the plot demands that everything be tied up satisfactorily (which it is, no doubt about that). The laconic Gabe is another character who is almost begging to have his story told. Sometimes it’s nice to find out more about certain characters (even if you don’t really need to) but, to be fair, Huston appears to be holding to the fact that you don’t always get the whole picture in real life...

‘Real life’ is certainly a term that can be applied to the events of ‘The Mystic Arts’. Shit happens and it often happens in a completely random way that no-one could have possibly foreseen. It’s like a comedy of errors but with the comedy taken out and replaced with the aforementioned fire bombings, beatings and death by telephone. I have to say though that I wasn’t too sure about what lay at the heart of the ‘Soledad plot’, people can place importance on the most unlikely things in real life but I was left wondering if perhaps Huston could have picked something better to smuggle than... I’ll leave you to find that out.

Despite this, ‘The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death’ is Huston staying firmly on top of his game. I reckon fans will love it and if you’re not a fan then this may be the book that converts you.

Nine out of Ten

6 comments:

SQT said...

I've heard of these 'clean-up crews,' *gag* what a job. But the book sounds really good.

pacamanca said...

lol I'd never heard of this kind of job before but it does sound creepy alright. Never heard of the author either... Another entry in my to-read list!

Darren Turpin said...

Check out the video trailer for the book at Charlie's site.

ediFanoB said...

these cleaners are no fiction. please look at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_scene_cleanup

http://science.howstuffworks.com/crime-scene-clean-up.htm

http://www.crimescenecleaners.com/

http://www.crimecleaners.com/

Fans of CSI and other series know this kind of job.


I never read a Charlie Houston novel before.
Your review convinced me to have a look at other Charlie Houston novels and to put THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH to my list.
And I think that is what a review should do.

Will said...

Sounds like a good read! I'm a little disturbed that I could have written the first paragraph of the review though - I've done the same temping job in the London suburbs as well!

Graeme Flory said...

Will - Are you me in disguise? :o)
Did you work for Islington Borough Council...?