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Arts Earth first (murder second) 

David Liss’ Ethical Assassin is an irresistible accomplice

At the beginning of The Ethical Assassin, 17-year-old Lemuel Altick trudges slowly through the Florida heat, hawking encyclopedias door-to-door, his speed and enthusiasm in marked contrast to the book, which crackles along at an addictive pace from the moment a polite gunman executes two potential customers in front of Lem’s eyes. Rather than disappear into the swampy sunset after he extorts Lem’s silence, the killer re-materializes in a Datsun hatchback and drags Lem through a down-’n’-dirty mystery involving a pig farm, a snaggle-toothed hick dictator, and missing pets.

Assassin is the fourth book by David Liss, who won the Edgar Award for best first novel for A Conspiracy of Paper, and his first set in contemporary America: ’80s Miami and Jacksonville, at a time that seems culturally significant to the state’s upwardly mobile criminal minds. “`Miami Vice` — God bless it — was single-handedly transforming Miami from a necropolis of retirees, marbled with pockets of black or Cuban poverty, into someplace almost hip, almost fabulous, almost glamorous,” muses B.B. Gunn, a roughly polished, shady entrepreneur enamored of linen suits. “The smell of mothballs and Ben-Gay drifted off, replaced by the scent of suntan lotion and titillating aftershave.”

That passage will give you some idea of Liss’ literary and descriptive skills, which are formidable sans preaching, a weakness he indulges in the character of Melford Kean, the self-righteous killer of the title who is motivated in part by his high regard for animals. Altick is our smart (he’s been accepted to Columbia but needs to raise tuition, hence the heinous sales job) yet clueless stand-in; he’s Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action, aware that he’s selling encyclopedia sets to people who can scarcely afford them, but lacking the critical thinking skills to quit. The enigmatic Kean, quick with a witty post-Marxist dialectic, is Lem’s moral wake-up call. If only their exchanges didn’t devolve into PETA-pamphlet language, in which Lem proffers straw men for Melford to vanquish.

The Ethical Assassin
By David Liss
Ballantine Books
$24.95, 336 pages
ISBN: 140006421X

David Liss
7pm Thu, Mar 2

Barnes & Noble
321 NW Loop 410

Melford: “But what about the right of an animal to escape torture? You don’t value that right over the right of a torturer to achieve pleasure or profit?” Lem: “No. Look, what goes on there is terrible ... but there is still a basic divide between people and animals.” Melford: “Because animals have a lesser sense of themselves?” Et cetera, sometimes for pages. Thrilling perhaps for readers who missed Philosophy 101, but most of that demographic is probably tied up with S is for Silence.

Desiree, a beguiling henchwoman who is a former conjoined twin, raises two other points of contention. The female characters in the book are exotic in beauty and background, but the exoticism masks a complete lack of character development in much the same way the pig farm masks more odious work. “There will never be true equality without gender-sensitive language,” Melford instructs Lem. Or without commensurate literary roles. Here the women serve two purposes: someone for Lem to kiss, and anticlimactic deus ex machina, handing our sleuthing duo the key to the mystery.

This is not much help to Lem, however, whose eurekas are always a hair behind his missteps, to hilarious effect. So like Desiree’s large scar, which is all the more noticeable because she’s so attractive, The Ethical Assassin’s faults won’t deter you from spending a pleasurable evening on the couch together.

By Elaine Wolff

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