Men do not take well to examination. Women, supposedly mysterious, are in a constant state of examination and re-examination of all facets of their existence: their bodies, themselves, their relationships with their friends, their sisters, their mothers and (God help us all) their husbands. Men don't deal with such things. They compartmentalize, having a separate drawer for each relationship, hidey holes for their fears, safe deposit boxes for their hobbies…you know what I mean. Women tell everything; men hide everything. And, in the end, it just makes it that much more difficult when reality comes up and knocks men across the head, and they are forced to confront what they try so hard to ignore.
THE KING OF LIES by John Hart is one of those books that does this --- and does it so well that it is at once too painful to behold yet so brilliantly told that one cannot look away, at least for very long. While a mystery, it is also the story of a man's confrontation with his life. Jackson Pickens is known to almost everyone as "Work" and is the only son of Ezra Pickens, the most successful attorney in Rowan County, North Carolina. Ezra's wife died about one year before THE KING OF LIES begins, and Ezra disappeared that same night. When Ezra's bullet-ridden body is discovered, the finger of suspicion points at Work, who has motive --- Ezra was extremely wealthy --- but his alibi appears to be unshakable.
As is typical in Work's life, however, things are not as they appear. His choices always seemed to have been made for the purpose of pleasing his father, and as a result his marriage, occupation and very life seem to be at forfeit for going down a path that his father had chosen for him rather than cutting his own. Work is certain he knows who killed Ezra, yet he has reasons of his own for not only diverting attention away from the individual but casting it upon himself. The mystery --- the whodunit angle, if you will --- of Ezra's murder is almost secondary though to the issue of whether Work will somehow reconstruct the tatters of his life. He can take an important first step, but it grows increasingly unlikely that he will, or that such an avenue ultimately remains open for him.
It is this element that transmutes THE KING OF LIES from a mystery into a coming-of-age novel, even if the protagonist is an unlikely middle-aged professional. As noted before, this is often the stuff of women's literature but is territory that is rarely, if ever, explored with a male protagonist. The result is a work that treads well and steadily into the land somewhere between that occupied by D.W. Buffa and William Faulkner: vaguely familiar, but rarely seen and almost never examined.
THE KING OF LIES may be Hart's debut novel, but his grip on this difficult subject matter is strong and sure. While most of this dark work is grim and unrelenting, those who shy away from such emotions will marvel at the richness of his language, and the depth of his understanding and emotion.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 26, 2011