Eating and reading often go well together. An entertaining book and a good meal make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Unless the book happens to be Charlie Huston's gruesome thriller The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.
When his roommate tires of his freeloading, Webster “Web” Fillmore Goodhue gets a job in the cutthroat world of trauma scene cleanup and soon finds himself knee-deep in blood and guts. The detached, sarcastic former teacher discovers that he is not only good at the job but actually enjoys the quasi-solitude of the Tyvek suit and labor that has immediate and obvious results. Soon after his first assignment-- a disgusting scene of roach hordes and impossibly nauseating smells, Web's second cleanup finds him in the unenviable position of interacting with Soledad, the grieving daughter of a gun-inflicted suicide victim.
--At least he left a note.
I didn't say anything, too occupied at the moment with working my Scotch-Brite pad over the speckles of blood on the surface of her dad's desk.
She picked another almond from the large bowl of them on the table next to the wingback chair near the the hallway door.
--I mean, I knew he was sick. But I'm glad he left the note anyway. So I know for sure why he did it. Sort of.
She dropped the almond back in the bowl, picked out another.
--You think anyone would lie about that? I mean, no one would lie on their suicide note, would they?
I replaced the lamp I'd taken from the desk, minus the silk shade that had been sprayed, and looked over at her.
--You want to be a little more enigmatic with your questions? Seriously, if you try a little harder I might get curious or something.
The pair's discussion quickly veers into flirtation. Po Sin, Web's literally larger than life Chinese boss, warns his young protégé to steer clear of the comely Soledad. “And people in her situation, they are prone to acting in ways they would not under normal circumstances. Start doing shit like talking to the help about their personal tragedies. Situations? like that can become quickly awkward.”
Web's situation quickly spirals out of control in Huston's 21st century interpretation of the classic noir. Thanks primarily to events related to the femme fatale, Web routinely receives threats and beatings as he sinks deeper into a dizzying conspiracy. Masterfully manipulating stereotypes, Huston populates his Los Angeles with fascinating complex, fully-realized individuals--many worthy of their own books.
Beginning in his prologue, Huston immediately thrusts the reader into a maelstrom of confrontation and dark humor.
Then I looked at much larger bloodstains on the sheets of the queen-size bed and the flecks of blood spattered on the wall. I looked at the floor to see what I'd crushed underfoot, half expecting cockroaches, and found dozens of scattered almonds instead. I listened as the door closed behind me and locked. I watched as Soledad walked toward the bathroom and the dud snagged her by the hand before she could go in.
--I asked, Is this the asshole?
I pointed at myself.
--Honestly, in most circumstances, in any given room on any given day, I'd say, Yeah, I'm the asshole here. But in this particular scenario, and I know we just met and all, but in this room here?
I pointed at him.
--I'm more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you're the asshole.
He looked at Soledad.
--So, yeah, he's the asshole then?
Unable to control his sarcastic tendencies, most of Web's beatings result from his inability to shut up.
Despite self-aware prose and excessive gore, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death barrels at a frenetic and exciting pace to a satisfying, inconclusive threads-akimbo conclusion on page 280. Unfortunately, L.A. resident Huston, in typical Hollywood fashion,felt compelled to tie up all of his dangling story lines and rambles on for another forty pages, sanitizing his otherwise deliciously dirty world.
Even with its faults, Charlie Huston's The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death successfully introduces a fascinating new protagonist in a thoroughly entertaining novel. Just don't read it while eating.
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death
By Charlie Huston
$25, 336 pages (hardcover)