The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death
Web Goodhue, an unemployed former school teacher, spends most his days harassing his best friend. Web is a bit of a jerk, a fact tolerated by his few friends because of the traumatic events that led to his unemployment and the fact that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress. However, when an acquaintance named Po Sin offers Web the opportunity to work at his “Clean Team” post death/trauma cleaning company, Web accepts. From Web is drawn into the strange underworld of crime scene cleaning as well the problems and shady dealings of one of Po Sin’s clients.
Listen. If you haven’t ever read Charlie Huston before, aren’t very squeamish and love good noir fiction then stop reading and just go pick up a copy of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. This isn’t my first encounter with Huston of course, that belongs to his 2006 relaunch of Marvel’s Moon Knight and I wasn’t a huge fan. I also listened to the first two books in his Joe Pitt novels on audio, a post for a later date, but it wasn’t until this novel that I realized precisely how gripping his prose can be.
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death manages to introduce a new character in Web, plop him down in a vibrant world full of colorful and interesting secondary characters, send him on a harrowing whirlwind adventure, and let the reader genuinely care about both his past and his future in only a bare 336 pages. Less in truth, since it is only a couple of chapters in, as details of Web’s past come to light that I became invested in Web’s fate. Web is equal parts sympathetic, unlikable, and enviable. Completely contradictory I know but true regardless. Everything from his father issues to the traumatic life changing event that made him into the jerk he is today to the fact he has no filter between his thoughts and his mouth combine to create a complex and fascinating character.
Huston is unflinching in his portrayal of violence or, perhaps more accurately, the aftermath of violence. From Web’s first day on the job cleaning the feces covered, roach infested apartment of a shut-in to wiping down the aftermath of a suicidal gunshot wound (note: information I didn’t need to know about having a mouth full of water while doing the deed was both horrifying and interesting) Huston never backs down from describing what it is that Web sees. It might be easy to write this off as something akin to the “torture porn” so prevalent in recent American horror cinema but I think it more likely that Huston seeks to elicit a horrified/disgusted reaction in readers so as to more emphasize Web’s lack of response to the horrors he sees (which, from an emotional standpoint, is less horrific then the event that elicited Web’s PTSD).
Web isn’t a detective, but he is observant, smart and quick on his feet. As mentioned above he has a tendency to run his mouth off which frequently makes him come off like a bit of a jerk. When dealing with the “bad guys” his mouthiness is a trait little different then the sarcastic wit evidenced by the more well known PI’s of the hard-boiled world. The dialogue and wit of Web is functionally similar to that of Joe Pitt, one of Huston’s other characters, though his educated barbs are somewhat reminiscent of Robert B. Parker’s Spencer. Hidden beneath his caustic veneer is a rather straight and narrow sense of moral obligation, particularly to his friends and family, that adds to Web’s already complex composition. If my last few paragraph’s have hammered home anything I hope it is that Web is wonderfully full-featured and wholly believable person. He doesn’t feel like a character in a book but like a guy you might run into on the street.
The plot of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is secondary to the development and change it causes in Web. Indeed, in all my reading for my hard-boiled project this is, so far, the only novel wherein the plot and mystery play true second fiddle to the characters that are involved in them. Of course this isn’t a detective novel, so perhaps it isn’t a fair comparison. The book is less about the how and why of things happening (Barthes’ hermeneutic code) and more with how Web deals with what’s happening around him (proairetic code). In that sense The Mystic Art of Erasing All Signs of Death functions in a narrative mode that is the express opposite of The Crazy Kill, which was most definitely all about the how and why a crime occurred.
The Mystic Art of Erasing All Signs of Death is an exciting read with dialogue every bit as chill inducing and thrilling as the action. For all its gross out moments and laugh out loud bits of witty dialogue it is a surprisingly intimate tale, a metaphor in long form, of one man’s attempt to rediscover life amidst the wreckage of death. I can’t recommend this book highly enough! Great read from a talented author.