The Ethical Assassin

by David Liss

Published by Ballantine Books

336 pages, 2006

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Third Crime's a Charm

Reviewed by Stephen Miller


During the early years of Saturday Night Live, there was a classic sketch satirizing the dual nature of household products, casting them as both utilitarian and hedonistic. Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd argued furiously in this mock TV commercial, until Chevy Chase stepped into the frame and announced that the product in question was both a floor wax and a dessert topping. Readers of David Liss' new novel, The Ethical Assassin, might feel much the same way. This is a work of crime fiction and a public service announcement.

Liss, who won an Edgar Award for his first period thriller, A Conspiracy of Paper (2000), has made his mark as one of today's most interesting historical novelists, capable of writing about either 17th-century Amsterdam (in The Coffee Trader, 2003) or 18th-century London (Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, 2004) with equal aplomb. In this new book, though, he fast-forwards through time to South Florida in the sticky summer of 1985 and opens his story dramatically in a white-trash trailer park.

Assassin's protagonist and narrator, Lemuel Altick, is a 17-year-old, Jewish door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, struggling to earn his tuition for Columbia University. As the novel begins to unfold, we find him inside a mobile home that shows all the tell-tale signs of "moochie" ("Moochie is plastic kiddie crap scattered everywhere. Moochie is garden gnomes, wind chimes, excessive and early -- or late -- holiday decorations, anything that suggested that here lived people who liked to spend money they didn't have on things they didn't need. Spending money on things their kids didn't need -- well, that was about as moochie as it got."). The lady of the trailer, Karen, and her apparent husband, the aptly named Bastard, have been taken in by Lem's canned sales spiel. Karen has just signed the check for the encyclopedia deposit when all hell breaks loose:

I didn't stray from the check grab. At least not until I saw Karen's eyes go wide and her face go pale and her mouth form into the comical surprise of an O. At the same moment, Bastard toppled over along with his chair, felled by an invisible punch, a punch that left a gaping hole, a dark and bloody hole, in the middle of his forehead.

Now I heard it. A puffy squeak of air, and Karen fell over, too. Not the whole chair, just Karen, out of her seat and onto the floor. The second shot hadn't been as neat as the first, and above her eyes it looked as though someone had smashed her with the claw end of a hammer. Blood began to pool around hair on the beige linoleum floor ...

Incredibly, Lem's life is spared by this book's title character, a tall white-haired ("Warholishy") hit man by the name of Melford Kean. Startled by Lem's presence inside the trailer, Melford incongruously strikes up a conversation about William Shakespeare's plays (of which Lem's favorite is Twelfth Night), and then talks the shocked teenager into leaving incriminating evidence all about the crime scene, just to ensure that Lem is serious when he promises not to go running to the police. If he talks, the kid will fit himself into the frame -- simple as that. Melford and Lem finally agree to go their separate ways, each holding the key to the other's freedom. However, when they later realize that Lem had left behind a piece of evidence confirming his presence at the crime scene, they both return, only to find a third body where there had been just a pair before.

The identification of that third corpse, and efforts to sanitize the mobile home once and for all would seem to be sufficient machinations for most mysteries. Yet, on top of those, author Liss throws in myriad plot twists and shady characters that keep The Ethical Assassin afloat for more than 300 fast-paced pages. Among the notable secondary players are Jim Doe, the impossibly corrupt and insipid police chief in a Florida speed trap, and owner of an ominous hog farm; B.B. Gunn, the financial force behind the encyclopedia business that employs Lem and other college-bound kids; and the manager of the book business, the volcanic-tempered Kenny Rogers, who prefers to simply be called The Gambler. Into this volatile jumble Liss adds a thriving distribution of methamphetamines, pedophilia, a Siamese twin who still hears her dead sister's voice, and large-scale hog butchery.

It should be said here that while Liss' Chinese fire drill of a novel is compelling as entertainment, there are larger issues at stake in the tale as well. The ethical assassin of The Ethical Assassin is, among other things, a devoted animal-rights activist. The reader catches onto this when Melford espouses his vegan beliefs; but the lengths to which he will go to protect animals only slowly unfurls over the course of this narrative.

"Let's say there's a dog, a heroic dog. A dog who has saved the lives of countless people through acts of bravery. Maybe a firehouse dog who rescues babies from fires. And let's say there is a convict on death row, one you know is guilty of horrible murders. He's escaped on the eve of his execution and he's taken the dog hostage. The next morning, the authorities discover his hideout. They know they can recapture him, but in doing so, the dog will surely be killed. Or they can have a sniper take out the convict and save the dog's life. What's more important, the convict who has killed numerous people and who would already be dead had he not escaped, or the dog, who has only done good?"

"Come on. It's an extreme case," I said.

"Agreed. It's the most extreme case I could devise on short notice. Now answer the question."

"You save the man," I told him, not entirely convinced I believe it. "Once you go down the road you're talking about, it's a slippery slope."

"So human life, no matter how evil, must always take precedence over animal life, no matter how exalted?"

The fact that such moral relativism is espoused by a contract killer is an irony that permeates The Ethical Assassin.

However, it seems pretty clear that this thinking is coming from Liss himself. It's always dangerous to assume that any character speaks as a surrogate for his or her creator. Yet a visit to Liss' Web site reveals that the author is an established vegan, and January Magazine's interview with him last year confirmed that the animal-rights movement provided the inspiration for his fourth and latest novel. But before any reader complains that passionate politics don't have a place in contemporary crime fiction, consider John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, who complained bitterly for years about rampant commercial development in South Florida and the destruction of the Everglades. Or recall Ross Macdonald's later Lew Archer novels, especially Sleeping Beauty (1973), which often incorporated environmental themes into their psychologically rich plots. Or take a stroll through the mean streets of Manhattan with Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder, who frequently detours from crime solving to provide sustenance to Alcoholics Anonymous. Social issues badly argued and sloppily written detract from a mystery yarn. Points well articulated, even though they may run counter to a reader's views, only enhance the experience provided by a piece of fiction. Therefore, although I enjoyed my time with The Ethical Assassin, I also plan to continue enjoying steak. The author's arguments occasionally border on the heavy-handed, but Liss is shrewd enough to know when he's made his point and should move on.

All of this shouldn't lead readers to conclude that Assassin hits its target every time. There are faults o be counted in these pages. The novel serves up occasional anachronisms, such as when a certain character is referred to more than once as being a "skank" -- a derogatory term that I don't believe was in circulation 21 years ago. And while the use of methamphetamines is certainly a chronic problem today, was it really a worry in the mid-1980s, when it seemed that cocaine was king?

Yet, those minor quibbles aside, The Ethical Assassin provides more than enough mystery nourishment. I'm looking forward to seeing where -- in which era and place -- Liss touches down next. | March 2006


Stephen Miller has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors. He lives in Hilliard, Ohio.