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.

Author, Book review, David Bezmozgis, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Russia, Setting, Viking

‘The Betrayers’ by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers

Fiction – Kindle edition; Viking; 240 pages; 2014.

David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion;  and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

Soviet dissident meets Soviet informer

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of  Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

It could even be argued that it is the fear of betrayal that forces Kotler’s son, a solider in the Israeli Army, to ignore his superiors by refusing to take part in the destruction of the Jewish settlements — even if he has to injure himself so that he is unable to do so.

Politics and humour

While The Betrayers deals with many heavy themes — including political oppression and the ways in which Soviet Russia manipulated its own citizens to turn against one another — Bezmozgis uses wry humour to lighten the load. For instance, early on in the novel, Kotler is very much aware that his relationship with Leora is preposterous given the difference in their age — and he knows this fact hasn’t been lost on the hotel receptionist who turns them away on the basis she can’t find their booking:

Perhaps someone could think, considering them, that here was a dutiful daughter vacationing with her father. But wasn’t that yet another of the changes, the increased number of daughters and fathers who seemed to be vacationing together?

And later:

What a picture they made, he thought. This voluptuous, serious, dark-haired girl with her head on the shoulder of a pot-bellied little man still wearing his sunglasses and Borsalino hat. Fodder for comedy.

Fast-paced “spy novel”

Admittedly, I have an aversion to novels that are focused on political betrayal (I’m not a fan of Cold War novels, for instance), but there was a lot I liked about this one. It’s fast-paced, too, and can be easily read in a day or two.

The male characters are well drawn (the females less so) and the dialogue is very good — short, sharp and punchy — enough to suggest it would make a terrific screenplay. That’s not to say Bezmozgis is light on detail, because he’s not — his descriptions of Yalta are particularly vivid and even the way he describes the inner life of Tankilevich, forced to beg the Jewish charity in Simferopol to extend his 10-year stipend, has a ring of authenticity to it.

But, on the whole, The Betrayers feels very much a “male book”, which may not bode well for winning a major literary prize like the 2014 Giller Prize, which will be announced in a week’s time (10 November).

For another take on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review.