The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H Cook

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The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H Cook

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel that proves an author doesn't need to invoke laughs in order to elicit curiosity and intrigue in this tale of a man attempting to uncover his friend's reason for suicide. It meanders rather than canters through the twists and turns providing time to appreciate its strong and compelling hold.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1908800145

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American travel writer Julian Wells walks out of the house he shares with his sister, wanders down to the garden lake, rows himself out to the centre and slits his wrists. He dies alone as he silently watches his life drip into the water. Devastated, his friend and frequent travel companion Philip Anders, tries to come to terms with the loss the only way he can: by attempting to understand. Julian dedicated a book to Philip, mentioning a 'crime' that Philip had witnessed. Philip had always thought it to be a flip reference to his comment from years before that it would be a crime for Julian to waste time writing a certain piece, but, in the light of tragic events, is this actually the case? Is there a crime in the author's past? As Philip retraces the essence of Julian through his words, the places they visited and people they encountered he slowly uncovers secrets and a dangerous obsession.

Thomas H Cook has written nearly 30 novels since his first, Blood Innocents, written whilst still in grad school. He may be prolific but he doesn't just churn them out, as The Mystery Writers of America recognised when they awarded him an 'Edgar' for The Chatham School Affair in 1996. In fact from the first paragraph of The Crime of Julian Wells it's obvious he's someone who nurtures words before releasing them into the world. It's comparatively easy to pin your readership to the page with fast action and short, choppy sentences but Cook does it the hard way. His language meanders and melifluates through twists, surprises and red herrings. This is may be a literary novel but definitely not one in which story and suspense are sacrificed at the altar of the fancy phrase.

As the novel begins, Philip assumes he knows everything about Julian and so narrates the journey we accompany him on as we meet his friend for the first time through Philip's memories, his inner dialogue and walking through countries they experienced. We feel Philip's bereavement and disbelief as he struggles with the things he may have done to prevent the untimely death. However, as we witness this, we also see his shock as the other side of Julian emerges from third party recollections.

This is the premise of the story but there's a subtext running through it. Part way through the novel we're introduced to the word most often found on the walls of the Russian gulags, written by the oppressed political prisoners: zachem. This would have made a great alternative title as 'zachem' means 'why'. Gradually we realise that Julian was drawn to the suffering of others, wanting to expose cruelty and injustice and so this isn't a word only applying to Philip's reaction to Julian's death.

Zachem echoes through much of Julian's body of work, whether it's about the World War II atrocities that Philip recounts for us or, in more recent times, the plight of the politically voiceless Argentinians as they disappeared from the streets, as much in a bout of mistaken identity as for anything they may have done.

Where the death of fictional Julian Wells is concerned the answer to zachem is fairly straight forward: sometimes seemingly unimportant acts have unintended consequences. Unfortunately in the case of the atrocities and injustices on which he reflected, there are more complex reasons and, as someone once pointed out, our failure to find an answer in past history will only cause their repetition.

A special thank you to Head of Zeus for sending us a copy of this book for review.

If you enjoyed this then we recommend Trieste by Dasa Drndic, another excellent fictionalised remembrance of historic moments.

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