20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, literary fiction, Publisher, Thomas H. Cook

‘The Crime of Julian Wells’ by Thomas H. Cook

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 292 pages; 2012.

The Crime of Julian Wells by American writer Thomas H. Cook is an intriguing and unusual detective story, but this is not a crime novel — at least not in the traditional sense.

What’s even more unusual is that the two main characters in the book are dead and the only way we learn anything about them is filtered through the eyes of a kindly narrator, Philip Anders.

Philip is a literary critic, and his best friend, Julian Wells, was a successful non-fiction writer whose books focused on the darkest crimes of the 20th century. But now Julian is dead, his body having been found in a small boat drifting on a lake in New York, and Philip wants answers.

A life in books

To prepare a eulogy, he begins to reread all of Philip’s books, which include stories about massacres, torturers and serial killers, but the more he reads, the more he becomes convinced that maybe Philip has committed a crime, too, and this would partly explain why he’s obsessed with the darker side of life.

And this gets him thinking about a young Argentinian woman the pair met in Buenos Aires when they were young men travelling the world. Her name was Marisol and she worked for the American Consulate as an English-speaking guide. Later, she had been “disappeared” and Julian had developed an unhealthy obsession about finding out what happened to her. Now Philip wonders if his friend might have played a part in her death.

This unease worsens when Philip goes to Paris to sort through Julian’s effects and discovers a series of photographs, mainly of Marisol, that look like they have been taken by surveillance cameras. In a bid to find out more, Philip embarks on an investigative journey that takes in Oradour, London, Budapest, Čachtice, Rostov (in Russia) and, finally, a return to Buenos Aires.

And the more he travels, the more he discovers…

Gothic undertones

There’s a decidedly gothic feel to this story, which plunges the reader into a world of horrific, and often famous, crimes from the past in “exotic” places such as Hungary and Russia and Slovakia and what was once Nazi-occupied France. Its often gruesome accounts of tortures and massacres are counterbalanced with the narrator’s memories of the past, his love for his friend and his own desire to find out the truth.

There are recurring themes, about friendship, deception and betrayal; good and evil;  spies, double agents and surveillance; politics and fighting for causes you believe in; and what it means to “make a difference”.

I loved its dark undertones and philosophical wandering, the way it plays with perceptions and makes you think you have the solution all figured out but then reveals a satisfying ending, the kind that makes you reassess your own assumptions.

This is a clever book, one that defies description — it’s part spy novel, part crime, part road trip, part suspense, perhaps even a touch of Dracula-like horror.  But, above all, as a novel that is essentially about humankind’s ongoing inhumanity to one another, The Crime of Julian Wells is a very humane and compassionate story.

This is my 7h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from a charity book sale last September for $3 knowing absolutely nothing about the book nor the author.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Neil Hegarty, Publisher, Setting

‘Inch Levels’ by Neil Hegarty

Inch Levels

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 352 pages; 2016.

Set in the Irish borders at the times of The Troubles, Neil Hegarty’s Inch Levels is a rich and complex novel about family, community and the secrets we keep.

A hospital patient

Patrick Jackson is a history teacher in his 30s who has been diagnosed with cancer. He’s lying in a hospital bed looking back on his life. He knows he hasn’t got much time left, so doesn’t feel encumbered by the need to say the right thing. He has a combative relationship with the nurses who patronise him, for instance, and he’s not entirely civil to his mother, the coolly unemotional Sarah, whom he has struggled to understand his whole life. And he makes it entirely clear he does not want to see his brother-in-law Robert, whom he detests, although his sister, Margaret, is welcome.

From Patrick’s behaviour we slowly come to learn of the complex relationships within this small Northern Irish family, of the unexpressed sorrow that has plagued his mother and of the secret domestic abuse that his sister has endured during her marriage.

But there are fond memories too: of swimming at Inch Levels, a local beach, of childhood picnics, and of the kind-hearted but simple-minded Cassie, an orphan who entered his mother’s family long ago and is now a cherished  family member in her own right.

External impacts

The story is framed around external impacts on the family. First, there is violence in the form of the Second World War and later the Troubles, which erodes normality and leaves a lasting impact. Sarah’s first boyfriend, an American soldier, dies when a sea mine explodes off the coast of Donegal in 1943; almost 30 years later Patrick and Margaret get caught up in the events of Bloody Sunday.

And then there is the murder of an eight-year-old local girl, Christine Casey, whose body is found dumped at the edge of the lake at Inch Levels. A month later Christine’s mother kills herself. This local tragedy plagues Neil, who cannot comprehend how such a thing could happen.

All these events are intertwined in Patrick’s memory as he tries to make sense of his life so far. Just as Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones examines how the accumulation of little acts over time creates a whole life, Inch Levels looks at the impact of larger events on people’s personal circumstances. Eventually all the loose threads are tied together to deliver a powerful and redemptive conclusion.

A  slow burner

But this is not an easy read. It’s a slow burner (it took me two goes to get into) and the narrative unfolds in a gentle, understated manner. There is no big drama here — despite the bombs, despite the family tragedies and despite the deaths.

It’s written in an eloquent voice, with gorgeous descriptions of the passing seasons, the landscape and the world beyond Patrick’s hospital window.

And there’s something rather insightful about the author’s ability to capture emotions and tensions between family members without turning the whole story into a melodrama. At times it very much reminded me of Deirdre Madden’s extraordinarily good One by One in the Darkness, which is set in a similar part of the world at a similar time.

For other takes on Inch Levels, please see Susan’s review at A Life in Books and Eric’s at Lonesome Reader.

This is my 5th and final book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.