Many of Thomas Cook’s characters live on life’s periphery. They are watchers, often writers, people who observe but hesitate to jump freely into life’s maelstroms. Philip Anders is such a man, but when his best friend row out to the middle of a lake and slices his wrists, Anders needs to find out why, and find out exactly what is the crime that drove Julian Welles to his death.
Welles was a writer too, but not a critic like Anders. He travelled, and he wrote of places immersed in human cruelty, a veritable catalogue of all the worst crimes that lie within the capabilities of man. But he was not a part of that, in fact, as we read on we get the impression that Anders may have been doing some sort of personal penance, or at least investigation, of the motivations behind this behaviour. Nothing is really what it seems, and Philip, who thought he knew his friend, realises that he knew nothing important about him, in part because he knows so little important about the world. Philip is aware of this: ‘I had little doubt that Julian had often found himself floating in some similar sea of strangeness, isolated, friendless, knowing little of the language or the customs, short of money, with only history’s most vile miscreants to occupy his mind.’ Note the way the poetry of alliteration early in the sentence lulls you, in an almost horror story way, before the straightforward tone of Philip’s own analysis explains his understanding.
Cook has written a lovely, though chilling, Chinese box of a novel, full of hidden compartments, mirrors in which things are reflected from different angles, and panels that tell the same story from other perspectives. The tale moves very slowly; its format almost cliched in its simplicity, as Philip, later accompanied by Julian’s sister Rosetta, moves through the maze from person to person, each adding another bit to Julian’s story, each bit causing him to re-evaluate both Julian and himself. The tale takes him back to a vacation trip the two young men took to Argentina, and Marisol, the travel guide they met, who was ‘disappeared’, as the term goes, in the days of the junta. Philip’s one true instinct is that her disappearance is the key to the story, and his pursuit of that story is one of repeatedly lifting covers, opening curtains, or raising blinds, to see what lies behind.
This may sound less than thrilling, and Cook himself is aware of that. As Philip explains: ‘In a thriller it would be others who are trying to keep me from finding things out. They’d be shooting at me or trying to run me down in a car. But in this case it seems to be Julian who’s covering his tracks’.
But as is often the case in Cook’s novels, we, as readers, find ourselves standing in Philip’s shoes, seeing through his eyes, just as limited in vision as he is. The real beauty of Cook’s writing, the thing that makes him so appreciated and perhaps accounts for his simultaneous under-appreciation,is his ability to weave a thriller in this fashion, that it is the minutiae of observation, of human understanding, of relationships, that form the crux of this book. Perhaps the greatest crimes are the ones we commit, unknowingly. As Philip is told: ‘Betrayal is like a landslide in your soul, no?’ he said. ‘After it, you cannot regain your footing’.
The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook
Mysterious Press/Head Of Zeus, £16.99, ISBN 9781908800145
NOTE: This review first appeared at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets