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Book Review: The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

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“The world has plenty of noise, Julian, but not many voices…. And because there are so few, each one matters.”

After 27 books (this is his 28th) you’d think that Thomas Cook would be a household name, at least if your household encompassed a library.

Six of his novels have been nominated for awards, including Red Leaves in 2006, which was also shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger and the Anthony Award, and went on to win the Barry Award and The Martin Beck Award and his 1996 novel The Chatham School Affair received an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America. Still, he is denied that superstar status, which may be the only pure mystery associated with Cook.

Unfortunately Cook’s work is usually grouped as ‘Mysteries’ along side Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Patricia Cornwell and because his books don’t really fit into that crowd, he goes somewhat unnoticed.

But his books are so much more than genre fiction. They are never formulaic. They’d best be described as literary fiction that uses themes from many other genres; mysteries, crime fiction, historical fiction, psychological thrillers and all to great effect.

It would be easy to mistake Cook as an English mystery writer, but he is a native of Alabama. He spent many years teaching English and History at Dekalb Community College in Georgia, and served as book review editor for Atlanta Magazine. He holds master’s degrees in history and philosophy and maybe this is why a number of his books have deeply knowledgeable historical backgrounds and settings and often dwell on motivations and psyches of the characters instead of stark action types of the “usual” thrillers.

The Crime of Julian Wells is Cook at the top of his game. An elegant stylistic literary mystery, filled with twists and puzzles and deeply human, multi-facetted characters instead of  action-packed thrills and bigger than life heroes. It’s written in a classic style reminiscent of the best cerebral detective stories.

Julian Wells shares one or two similarities to his author. Julian is a successful writer who suffers from that same failure of the marketing people to classify his work. In Julian’s case, he is often mistaken for either a travel writer or a true crime writer or a historical novelist, therefore his book usually only pay him enough to last the research on his next. He travels the world to half-forgotten places to document and write about real life crimes, usually serial killers or multiple homicides; Paul Voulet and the atrocities committed by him and his band in Africa, Irma Ida Ilse Grese – nicknamed “the Beast of Belsen”, “The Beautiful Beast”, and “Die Hyäne von Auschwitz” -, warden of the women’s section of Bergen-Belsen and convicted for crimes against humanity at the Belsen Trial and sentenced to death. Gilles de Rais a leader in the French army and a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc,  and his assistant  (La Meffraye – “the terror”) in the serial killing of children.

Julian, at the open of the story, has returned home to his Montauk, Long Island home, occupied by him and his sister, Loretta. This scene seems to find him tidying up family business, maybe researching his next book (he is studying a map) or perhaps about to set out on his next journey and is leaving his home (he thinks to himself as he looks out of his study windows at a pond that he will “miss these things”).

But it soon becomes apparent that his melancholy leads to a more final destination as he rows a yellow boat with peeling paint to the middle of the pond just far enough that he will appear small and distant enough that his sister can’t tell what he is doing or get to him before he can finish what he has set out to do. Once there, he slits his wrists and hangs his arms in the water.

The main mystery, from this point on is why? Julian’s sister, Loretta and his best friend, Philip Anders are left to speculate as to the reasons that Julian, who had always seemed so steadfast, would take his own life. While recalling a trip to Rome with Julian, Loretta recalls viewing the little piazza, the Campidogilo that looks so square, but is in actuality only designed that way by Michelangelo as a trick of perspective.

“It’s distortion that creates perfection,” Julian had said. Was Julian’s life also a distortion and only designed by him to seem like perfection?” The only clues are the map he was studying before rowing to the middle of the pond – a map of Argentina with a red circle drawn around an obscure village – and the dedication in the front of Julian’s first book from years ago that Philip now pondered the meaning of; “For Philip, sole witness to my crime.”

Philip, the son of a mid-level U.S. State Dept. functionary – as was Julian’s father, who died young – and a literary critic and book reviewer who had purposely chosen a slow-paced, unremarkable life – as he states late in the book,”…it’s mostly the fact that I don’t have any talent, …I don’t sing or act or play a musical instrument. I’ve read the great books, but I couldn’t never write even a bad one.” – while his friend chose to travel the four corners of the earth, rubbing elbows with evil and journeying into “the heart of darkness.” “Julian had a lot of feeling,” says an old literary friend, “but too much of it was morbid. . . . Darkness was the only thing he knew.” And Philip thinks, “It was evil he was after, I could tell, some core twist in the scheme of things.”

Philip can’t help but wonder to himself, and eventually Loretta, if he failed his friend is some way by choosing to not stay close to Julian and in changing the subject whenever the conversation grew serious. And could he have stayed Julian’s hand if he were in that boat with him? And what would he have said to him?

And now rethinking that dedication in Julian’s first book, he finds himself drawn to discover just what this crime could have been. Philip sets out, first alone, and then with Loretta as a willing assistant, to retrace Julian’s life through the history and chronology of his books. He travels to London, Paris, Budapest, Russia and eventually back to Argentina, where shortly before starting his life as an author, Julian and Philip had spent a summer and had met up with Marisol, an English-speaking tour guide,  during the late ‘70s during Argentina’s “Dirty War”.

Along the way Philip and Loretta meet with, interview and research events and subjects, literary acquaintances, old spies and old criminals and witnesses to Julian’s life and writing. At first Philip feels out of his depth as a de facto-detective on the trail of a crime that Julian seemingly only knew in his own heart, but Philip comes to wonder if he, himself, might have been, somehow complicit in. And if so, then wasn’t he in someway also complicit in his friends decision to take his own life? Philip thinks at one point, “I was never trained in finding anything but metaphors and symbols.” But he soon starts to find that Julian’s whole career might have been some soul-search for redemption, some quest to discover the effects on the victims as well as the motivation in the evil hearts of killers who often hid behind a mask of charm or whose evil was only revealed by circumstance.

Thomas H. Cook

Along the dark trails of Julian’s life Philip and Loretta are led back to Marisol and Argentina. But Julian never had romantic thoughts for Marisol, who was apparently one of the “disappeared”, and one of the innocent, as Marisol was not a political person. As they have discovered, Julian was more than he appeared and haunted by more than they were able to see, caught up in their own lives while he was alive.

Did Julian discover that “Hell is not other people, but in opposition to Sartre’s famous line, it is what we do to other people.” And if so, then what did Julian do and to whom? Could Julian’s crime have been worthy of the death sentence he passed on himself? And to steal a line from Graham Greene’s The Third Man, is it true that “A person doesn’t change just because you find out more (about them).”

Cook weaves a tale with curves that only lead to more curves with literary  references to such writers as Eric Ambler, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene – and this may be the only fault as the author too often reminds us at transitions in the plot that “in a novel….this would happen, but…” –   as well as references to some obscure and some more famous serial killers and dark historical events.

Cook’s prose is wonderfully wrought; elegant,  and the plot intricate as it explores not just the history of evil men and women and evil deeds both great and small, but the cost to the psyche when we travel too deeply into ‘the heart of darkness’ and as Marlow felt at the end of that story,” …(he) is drained by the tale he has just related, emptied not of energy but of belief. It is as if the darkness he describes has dialed down the light in his soul.”

It also is about how unspeakable crimes can be committed by ordinary people, especially when they wear a mask of deception, “It’s in all of Julian’s books. Deceit. The moment when the face of someone you  thought you knew changes, and you suspect that there’s something terrible behind the mask.”  Or the hard an an innocent act, a game can cause. “Like Orpheus, he had brought music into hell, and like him, he had died in a world that no longer wished to hear it.”

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.
  • BC Armstrong

    Why are you chopping a short article into four pages? How about some consideration to the many people who suffer from RSI? (not to mention all the people who simply find it really, really annoying. Do you want people to come back to the site? Then don’t stupidly make us click through so many pages for an item that could fit on one. Thank you.