by Michael Pye
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
295 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Michael Pye's Taking Lives puts you inside a psychopath's mind and, after the initial shiver of fascination, it's a repugnant experience. Pye later transforms his book into a finely written classic thriller, but not every reader will make it that far. And those who do may wonder if it was worth it. I, for one, am still mulling that over.
First of all, kudos to Pye, a British-born international traveler, journalist, and novelist, for trying something different. Taking Lives is a starkly ambitious book. Pye takes the question of identity -- often a tantalizing subsidiary theme or plot device in mystery novels and thrillers -- and brings it to the fore. His provocative subject: a psychopath who kills carefully selected victims, assumes their identities, and then goes on to live their lives.
In the opening chapter, a Dutch teenager, Martin Arkenhout, and an American college student named Seth Goodman strike up a conversation on a bus in Florida. On a whim, they rent a car to better explore the rural area. But the car breaks down and Goodman, trying to summon help on the roadside, is struck by a passing car and left critically injured. Arkenhout soon finds himself bludgeoning Goodman to death with a rock, switching their wallets and papers, and continuing his journey -- Goodman's journey, that is -- to college in New York.
Was the motive for this murder panic, mercy, or self-interest? Pye provides conflicting hints, then leaves the reader to brood over them as he goes on to document with cool, languid precision Arkenhout's disturbingly easy metamorphosis into a killer, an impostor, and a serial murderer. When Goodman's increasingly suspicious parents demand that their son return home for Christmas, Arkenhout realizes that the funds associated with Goodman's identity will soon dry up. He must find a new, and similarly lucrative, identity, with as long a shelf life as possible. Using these criteria, he progressively courts and kills victims who are moneyed, isolated, and frequently on the move. He lives out their identities for as long as their funds last -- in the New York art world, on remote Caribbean resorts, and attached to shady European financial companies. In their setting, as well as their flat, jaded tone, this book's early chapters have much in common with a Bret Easton Ellis book. But while Ellis' characters tend to end up high, Pye's end up dead.
The cycle of hunting, killing, hiding out, and fleeing is brutal and dulling. Pye gives his killer not one scintilla of humanity and the reader not a page of respite. By the end of the book's long first chapter, after Arkenhout has killed -- and assumed the persona of -- an English college professor, Christopher Hart, he encounters his surprised mother on a train in Amsterdam.
She says, "Martin? I'm your mother."
Not a page too soon, Pye shifts tone and viewpoint. Taking Lives escapes the miasma of Arkenhout's life and becomes the first-person narrative of John Costa, a museum curator who will eventually track Arkenhout down -- and become his victim.
Costa is the classic amateur detective: a decent man, intelligent, curious -- and flawed. He wrestles with his troubled but passionate marriage and is disturbed by his father's sudden decision to leave England and return to the family's former village in Portugal.
Costa asks the questions that intrigued, and then irritated, me from the time I read Pye's first chapter. Did Arkenhout commit his first murder out of fear? For a thrill? Was it a mercy killing? Or was there something in his apparently bourgeois Dutch upbringing that triggered his violent act?
Classic thrillers about psychopathic behavior, such as Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs, draw their power from the terrible juxtaposition of the madman's twisted rationale and the everyday innocence of his unsuspecting victims. Each scene becomes a marvel of life-threatening, hair-raising double-entendres.
Taking Lives enters this territory when Costa and Arkenhout cross paths. The serial killer, still posing as professor Hart, is unaware that Hart had recently stolen some rare manuscripts from a British museum. Costa, representing that museum, pursues the man he believes to be Hart as far as Portugal, hoping to regain those missing manuscripts. As fate would have it, Hart/Arkenhout takes a vacation villa near the village where Costa's father had only just died. While settling family business and attempting to negotiate for the manuscripts, Costa makes increasingly unnerving discoveries about the identities of Hart and Arkenhout, and about his father's involvement with political oppression during World War II. The book culminates with a blazing fire and an intriguing and unanticipated plot twist.
It's a shame that Knopf, Pye's publisher, felt compelled to turn the cover of Taking Lives into an ad. "This book is a work of fiction. The criminal who inspired it is still at large," it intones ponderously, attempting to send a chill down your spine but sounding like a preview for a made-for-TV movie.
Taking Lives stands on its own without hype. It's far from a perfect book, but Pye has taken risks and explored the darkest corners of the mystery/thriller genre. While I won't rush to read his next book, having read this one, I'll expect more of other, more palatable, crime fiction writers. Taking Lives will give readers and writers able to stomach his approach a good deal to think about. | April 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON reviews crime fiction regularly for January Magazine.