Published by Mysterious Press on August 7, 2012
Thomas Cook's books are always filled with penetrating insights, sharp observations of human nature. Deception and betrayal, common themes in Cook's novels, percolate from the center of The Crime of Julian Wells. Although the story is driven by a secret -- what is the crime to which the title refers? -- it is the reaction to betrayal, its poisonous impact ("like a landslide in your soul"), that gives the story its heart.
The Crime of Julian Wells begins with Julian's suicide. The suicide baffles Julian's best friend, Philip Anders, from whose perspective the story is told. Philip is a literary critic, while Julian was an expatriate writer mired in darkness who traveled the world to chronicle stories of crime and cruelty. "It was evil he was after," Philip recalls, "some core twist in the scheme of things." Also confounded by Julian's decision to end his life is Julian's sister Loretta. While Philip and Loretta both knew Julian to be restless but exuberant in his youth, they also recognized that Julian's state of mind changed after he traveled with Philip to Argentina.
The dedication in Julian's first book -- "For Philip, sole witness to my crime" -- had always seemed to Philip a joke. Julian's death causes Philip to reconsider its meaning. Obsessed with the notion that he had, in fact, witnessed a crime he failed to recognize, Philip scours his memory while embarking on his own investigation, a quest that makes him ponder the fate of two people he met in Argentina toward the end of the Dirty War, friends who subsequently disappeared: Father Rodrigo, who appeared to be a poor parish priest, and Marisol Menendez, a tour guide who assisted Julian and Philip. Following the trail from a seedy bar in Paris to a hotel bar in London favored by spies and zigzagging across the globe from there, Philip endeavors to uncover the secrets that his friends had concealed.
How does one destroy a monster, one of the characters asks Philip, without becoming a monster? Julian spent his adult life trying to identify with the victims of monsters in the hope that he could tell their stories. Through much of the novel Cook invites the reader to ask whether Julian's crime, whatever it was, made him a monster or a victim -- or both. Using a particularly clever device, Cook develops Julian's personality through the books Julian wrote. Philip rereads them after Julian's death, and the passages he quotes furnish insight into Julian's life while providing clues to his fate. His search for the truth about Julian leads Philip to some unpleasant truths about his own life.
Philip frequently alludes to (or quotes from) novelists and poets and travel writers. He often references Eric Ambler, an author with whom Cook has much in common. Like Ambler, Cook is as much a philosopher as a writer of suspense novels. He illuminates the shadows that darken the human heart. With the clarity of truth that the best fiction supplies, Cook reveals not just the pain that drove Julian to his death, but the pain that is common to all who have been broken by deception and betrayal.
Cook's plot is constructed with precision. His characters come alive with the virtues and flaws that define a life. His radiant prose is forceful and direct; this is not a novelist who wastes words. Few authors of literary suspense novels can match Cook. The Crime of Julian Wells is not Cook's best book, but it is a strong addition to his impressive body of work.