THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS is one of those great books that readers don’t want to talk about too much for fear of divulging more than they should, thereby spoiling the surprises and wonders therein. Though not a large book by any means (under 300 pages), it must be read slowly, with resistance given to the urge to move ever forward and quickly to see what happens next. Every word and scene counts in some way, so that by the time readers reach the conclusion, curiosity will be piqued and other books and sources will be sought out. It’s that type of book.
"THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS is one of those great books that readers don’t want to talk about too much for fear of divulging more than they should, thereby spoiling the surprises and wonders therein."
Genre classification does not come easily with respect to THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS. It begins with Wells’ suicide; there’s no mystery as to how or who. The question that haunts Wells’ friend, Philip Anders, is the “why” of his friend’s actions. Wells was a highly regarded author of true crime novels, choosing to write about monsters who committed large-scale atrocities either in the name of a government or for their own personal aggrandizement. His choice of event, or monster, was not the one that might normally jump to someone’s mind when the topic is broached, such as Manson, Gacy or Dahmer, but rather those occurrences that are not immediately familiar to American audiences. Anders is haunted and perplexed by his friend’s sudden suicide, somehow feeling responsible for it. A number of times during the first-person narrative, Anders notes that, if he could only have been with his friend at the time of his demise, he might have saved him from his self-inflicted fate.
In an effort to get to Wells’ motive, Anders journeys to Paris, where Wells maintained an apartment. Guided by a somewhat enigmatic Parisian acquaintance of Wells, Anders begins revisiting the locales that were the settings for his friend’s books and that reflected the man’s obsession with the dark side of human behaviors. He also attempts to retrace the steps of his friend’s final days, revisiting old haunts and making new acquaintances.
As he embarks on this personal quest, Anders is haunted by the memory of a woman named Marisol. It was she who had served as a tour guide for Anders and Wells while they visited Argentina; while there had been no overt romantic involvement between the woman and her charges, her sudden disappearance, in a time and place where such a thing was not unusual, haunted them both. Anders comes to wonder if the “crime” that Wells would occasionally and obliquely reference in his speech and writing --- including a dedication to Anders in his first book --- had anything to do with Marisol’s disappearance.
As he searches for the answer to this and other questions, Anders slowly comes to discover a different side to his friend, one foreign to him despite having known Wells for many years. In doing so, Anders is put to the challenge, which he notes and quotes from a bit of dialogue taken from the film The Third Man: “A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.” Anders ultimately discovers both more and less about his friend --- and others --- than he had planned, and must answer the question, stated more implicitly than explicitly: What does one do with that knowledge, if anything?
THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS unfolds slowly but hauntingly. Cook will not be rushed here --- the image of a seductress slowly disrobing comes to mind --- and his summaries of Wells’ books and their underlying topics provide fodder for further reading. First, however, one wants to read this book, which hearkens back to the best work of such authors as Eric Ambler and Graham Greene while standing firmly on its own.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 17, 2012