Book Review: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

Charlie Huston. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. New York,Ballantine Books, 2009. 319 pages.

Wow. That’s my one word review of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. It’s one of the best, most distinct books I’ve read in a long time.

I suppose the most cliched way to describe the book would be as a “noirish thriller,” but I don’t think that really does it justice. It’s a thriller in the sense of an exciting read about characters that the reader cares about, and noirish in that they are from the substrata of Los Angeles society.

I had to briefly recalibrate my brain before I could get completely immersed in The Mystic Arts. Huston doesn’t use quotation marks, just an emdash to indicate speech, and doesn’t let you know who said what. It takes a little getting used to–you might backtrack a few times in the first couple pages to make sure you’ve got the right end of a conversation–but once you do, it works really well. This technique makes parts of the novel read almost like a screenplay by removing the mediating voice of the author. The characters speak directly to us, which really makes the dialog shine.

Huston’s still behind the camera, drawing the reader’s attention towards details and the bigger landscape, and when he does take over, he produces at times uncomfortably vivid images of the protagonist, Web Goodhue’s new job as a death scene cleaner.

We open with Goodhue an enigma–he’s abrasive and obnoxious,but there are a few hints that it wasn’t always so. He’s got quirks, like refusing to ride the bus. These and other mysteries keep the reader engaged. The supporting cast, including Goodhue’s friend Chev, his employed Po Sin, and his workmate Gabe, are really well-crafted characters. At the end of the novel, I wanted to know more about each of them. It really says something about a writer’s skill when the reader can not only see a minor character as a fully-fleshed out person, but wants to read more about them.

The plot is your standard noir: shady protagonist gets involved with some dangerous characters and soon realizes he is over his head in a game he’s only slowly starting to understand. Naturally there’s a femme fatale. Huston has such a powerful voice that all of this seems fresh. It’s not just the contemporary setting that makes this novel different from classic noir fiction–it’s the outstanding storytelling.

I strongly recommend The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death for anyone who wants to read something a little different. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed–I know I wasn’t.

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