The Crime of Julian Wells
By Thomas H. Cook
Head of Zeus, 2012
This, Cook’s latest novel, is a very fine Gothic concoction indeed.
The characters are well drawn: robust and fragile, brave and fraught with fear, human all too human. There is an intricate story, brimming with suspense, expertly told. And the theme is a big one, one that Cook had addressed also in Instruments of Night, the book whom many (and I count myself among them) regard as his masterpiece. The novel is all about Evil’s contagion, its propensity to damage those who do little more than come into contact with it, breathe the same fetid air for a moment. Cook suggests that that little is more than sufficient. Some stains cannot be removed.
It begins with a suicide: Julian Wells, a writer who had made several studies of evil, ends his own life. He takes a boat out to the middle of a lake beyond the family home, then very deliberately slits his wrists. What made him do it? And why, in all his writings, was he always drawn to darkness, to serial killers and mass murderers, to those who inflict torture and implement genocide?
These are the questions that his friend Philip Anders, a mediocre literary critic, is haunted by and seeks to answer. They lead him around the world and closer to home than he had bargained for. Too close for comfort, in fact.
There is a (slight) postmodern knowingness to it all (Anders, the narrator, is a literary critic after all, and alludes to other writers within his own anxious tale) but Cook delivers a good story, no worries. At one point Anders is compared to Nick Charles, one of Hammett’s PIs, but he was probably named more with Marlowe in mind (and, yes, Heart of Darkness is one of the works that Anders alludes to).
The Crime of Julian Wells is a terrific read from one of the masters of modern Gothic.