The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Review)

Charlie Huston (Ballantine Books)

Apr 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Charlie Huston’s latest work of fiction is sort of like Hardcore music and movies that feature martial artists: It reeks of “dude.” Like other would-be noir writers, Huston can’t negotiate the fine line between the genre’s trademark kitsch and overt, meathead drama. The book follows Web Goodhue — a snarky former schoolteacher haunted by a past that’s rendered him traumatized and unemployed — into a new career as a crime-scene detailer. Web is dispatched to locations where a particularly messy death has occurred and, donning a Tyvek suit, he sets to work sponging, scraping and scrubbing away human remains. Despite all attempts to paint Web as besieged and quirky, his lovability is negated early on when he nails the bereaved daughter of a Malibu millionaire just hours after wiping her father’s brains off the ceiling fan. Sure, sex and hardboiled crime go together, but both the interlude and the dubious femme fatale lack class. Employing an absurd amount of profanity and focusing solely on gore, Huston misses every opportunity to juxtapose his bloody crime scenes against their glittering Hollywood backdrop. Another unfortunate irony is Huston’s use of secondary characters like L.L. (Web’s washed-up screenwriter father) and Jamie (a fauxhawk-sporting, twentysomething producer) to convey a clear distaste for the American film industry and its “types.” Meanwhile, the book practically begs for a screen adaptation with its gratuitous pop culture references and the screenplay-esque (and totally distracting) long dashes that Huston uses to signal dialogue. All the necessary elements of crime fiction are present in The Mystic Arts, but Huston ultimately mistakes brash for edgy. The end result is self-conscious, overdone and just plain stale. Grade: D