Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Ethical Assassin / by David Liss

Needing money for college, 17-year-old Floridian Lem Altick hits the road the summer after high school as a door to door salesman of encyclopedias. It's a scammy business, a ruse run by con artists who prey on the rural poor by getting them to think they're making an "educational investment" for their underpriveleged children. And though Lem is actually good at his job, a surprise to everyone including him, he disapproves of the predatory nature of what he does. In the midst of making a pitch one afternoon, he witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his customers, a young couple in a trailer home, by a stranger not much older than Lem who appears out of nowhere. The assassin, later introduced as Melford Kean, agrees to spare Lem's life in return for his continuing silence. He assures Lem that the deaths were no great loss ("These people had it coming."). It's not like he has much choice; Kean forced Lem to put his prints are on the murder weapon and there was at least one witness who saw him enter the trailer at the time of the killing. Going back to his job still wide-eyed with shock, Lem tries to forget about it all only to run in to Kean later that same day, maybe a coincidence but probably not. Before he knows it, Lem's downtrodden gig of peddling overpriced, outdated encyclopedias merges with a strangely alluring world of professional killing and exploitation as his life, up to now a disappointment, is never the same again.

Liss, a scholar of mostly 17th and 18th British literature and author of several successful historical novels, pens a worthy standalone in this book about an assassin with a hyped-up Machiavellian view of life and a casually manipulative way of getting things done. The story meanders around from one plot element to another--Lem and Kean's meeting, corrupt sherriff/mayor involved in the investigation and the overarching criminal underground which infiltrates everything--but the pacing is solid and the author's characterization really shines at depicting his supporting cast, a myriad of sordid types in a world of shady salesmanship, drug rings and sleazy small town cops. Liss, a San Antonio resident, might not quite be up to the level of a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard but he's not far off. Even with his other work not really in the same vein, or even the same genre, The Ethical Assassin catches on as an entertaining read, unique really in its setup with a normal, down-on-his-luck guy confronted by some quirky, real-world circumstances and an enigmatic villain/hero he can't get away from. (MYS LISS)

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