David Liss is full of surprises. His first three novels --- A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, THE COFFEE TRADER and A SPECTACLE OF CORRUPTION --- are probably best classified as historical suspense thrillers, taking place in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. His new work, THE ETHICAL ASSASSIN, is much more modern in time and closer to home in space. Set in the 1980s in South Florida --- inland, not coastal --- Liss presents a tale of triple crosses and unforgettable, realistic characters in a narrative that, despite stumbling in a couple of spots, is riveting and addictive.
THE ETHICAL ASSASSIN, perhaps more than anything else, is a dark coming-of-age novel, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE for the post-Vietnam generation. Lem Altick is a recent high school graduate somewhere between a nebbish and a class president. His grades could get him into Columbia but are not quite good enough for financial aid; he made the track team, and while never finishing first in an event, he never dragged the team down. Altick's stepfather, a somewhat shadowy figure who we meet only in flashback, is half-in and half-out of his life. While he isn't quite comfortable playing the role of dad, he somehow gives Altick what little good advice he has to get him through life. Regardless, however, he isn't about to put Altick through school.
Several thousand dollars behind the tuition eight-ball, Altick becomes an itinerant encyclopedia salesman in south Florida, trolling the trailer parks and not-quite downtrodden neighborhoods in search of parents interested in investing in their children's education. Consistent with his life in general, Altick is a little unsure of himself but is pretty good at his job. He is, in fact, right in the middle of closing a sale when he is rather traumatically introduced to Melford Kean, the "ethical assassin" of the piece. Kean is by turns one of the most interesting elements of THE ETHICAL ASSASSIN and its largest bore; his motives and actions are often shrouded in mystery, while his occasional vegan and Marxist lectures is a real narrative killer.
Altick has a penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Kean has a way of getting him into and pulling him out of huge trouble, not the least of which is a triple murder and a whole lot of missing money. There are a number of dangerous characters in this book, including a crooked, dangerous cop who makes Harvey Keitel's character in Bad Lieutenant look like a model law enforcement officer; a quasi-businessman who is making a fateful plunge into pederasty; and a brooding psychopath who is a potential catalyst for destruction. All are tied into Florida's burgeoning crank industry, which is flying under the radar of legitimate law enforcement and making all involved wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Altick unwillingly finds himself in the middle of a pack of wolves.
There's also a young lady to rescue, she being the understated yet irresistibly exotic Chitra Radhakrishkan, a fellow encyclopedia salesperson who is similarly disaffected while being a bit more sure of herself. And there is, of course, Kean. Altick is not certain if Kean is his salvation or his doom. Indeed, as we see near the end of THE ETHICAL ASSASSIN, he may well be both.
Liss, despite lapsing into occasional rhetoric, has created a novel that is by turns hilarious and horrifying. His setting and characters beg comparison with Carl Hiaasen; Liss, however, succeeds in making his characters bizarre and frightening without resorting to the sort of exaggeration that sometimes infects Hiaasen's work. Anyone who has spent quality time in South Florida will immediately recognize each and every individual who wanders onto and off the pages of THE ETHICAL ASSASSIN. His description of the processing of crystal methamphetamine is both dead-on accurate and enough to make anyone considering such an enterprise to look elsewhere for a vocation.
Liss, already an Edgar Award winner for A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, may need to clear some space on his mantel for further accolades.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011