Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, The by Charlie Huston

Published by Random House
January 2009
ISBN 978-0-345-50111-0
336 Pages

Who cleans up after a crime scene? You know, the blood, the guts, the brains that stick to the wall after suicides? It isn’t a question that comes to mind on a regular basis, so one would assume a “regular guy” wouldn’t be the type of person to hold down such a job. In The Mystic Art of Erasing all Signs of Death, Charlie Huston introduces readers to Web Goodhue, a man with issues. Web is angry, caustic, and a general asshole even to his best and only friend, Chev whose been helping Web sort out his life after an (initially) unspecified tragedy befell him in the recent past. By help, Chev allows Web to live with him, eat the food he buys and puts up with his attitude.

Web soon finds himself working crime scenes, though not with the glitzy attire and hi-tech equipment one might see on CSI. Rather, Web is one of the guys how comes in after Grissom and his crew and cleans the mess of the scene – blood, excrement, body parts, etc. As with any niche industry, crime scene cleaning is very competitive as Web’s boss Po-Sin tells him. On one of Web’s very first clean up jobs – the scene of a suicide, he catches the eye and fancy of the dead man’s daughter Soledad. Po-Sin warns Web to not get personally involved with any clients. Of course, Web being the arrogant character he is, he finds himself entangled in a strange Web of crime, passion and deceit with the young woman.

Huston tells the story completely from Web’s eyes, the dialogue is real, raw and puts the reader into the narrative of the story in a very effective manner. All of the characters Huston brought to life in Mystic Arts are vibrant (Po Sin, Chev, Web’s father – a former screenwriter and script-doctor), Web is the lynchpin and sun around which they all rotate. Initially, Web’s arrogant and off-putting manners are questionable. A dark event in his past is alluded to and through the course of the narrative, Huston illuminates two life-shattering events which have led Web to be the person he is. It’s a wonder Web hasn’t taken his own life because of the events, but he’s basically too stubborn to give in.

Prior to the novel’s events, Web was a teacher, which doesn’t come out immediately, which begs the question: how did a guy who once taught young kids become trauma scene cleaner? Huston answers the question in brief passages peppered through out the “current” plot of Web’s involvement with Soledad’s (and her brother Jamie) problem. This is where Huston’s storytelling skill really shines – he intricately weaves the past and present into a seamless story that by novel’s end you wonder how he packed so much into such a relatively thin novel 336 pages, many of which comprise single line dialogue. The dialogue is another strong point of the novel, Huston conveys character, setting, and plot so well with the dialogue. The story seems like it would transition very well to the screen maybe through the help of a director like Quentin Tarantino.

This novel is unrelated to any of Huston’s previous fictional characters/worlds, though Web is the type of guy that might deserve more stories. Huston gives the story here closure, but you get the sense he had a lot of fun writing Web’s story and might not want to let go just yet. Fans of crime fiction, Huston’s previous novels or readers just looking for something slightly off-the-beaten path would do well to take part in the Mystic Arts.

© 2009 Rob H. Bedford

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