The Mystic Art of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston


Great title, innit?

Let’s say you’re reading a spy novel, and Our Hero is running for his life, having been framed as a traitor by someone “in the agency.” Flee! Find clues! Reveal truth! And let’s imagine that Our Hero discovers that there’s a shadowy agency within the agency, and that the person who betrayed him is his own partner!

Or, what if you had a fantasy about a farmboy who visits a fortune teller. “You have a great destiny,” the fortune teller informs him. “A terrible Darkness gathers in the West! You must find your true father!” The farmboy’s parents tell him it’s true–he was a foundling. The farmboy sets out for the big city to fulfill his destiny and find his biological father (Could it be… the king?)

Or you’re reading a mystery novel, and there’s one character who is so shifty and unlikeable that he seems very likely to be the killer. However, what do you find out at the end? The killer was someone else altogether!

So, these are conventions of the genres: the red herring suspect, the farmboy of royal lineage, the traitorous partner, and many others. In a way, they’re part of the basic appeal of the genres (although long time readers may grow weary of seeing them all the time). To outsiders, though, the appeal falls flat. It’s a bit like seeing a model dressed in a fetish outfit; you know it’s supposed to appeal to someone, but that someone ain’t you.

That’s how I felt reading through The Mystic Art…; I kept coming across things that I knew were supposed to intrigue me, but came across as flat. For instance, imagine you have a protagonist with a Terrible Mysterious Tragedy in his past. No one speaks directly about the TMT for a good portion of the book, building the mystery around it as the character struggles with the dysfunction that governs his whole life.

What you find out, though, is that the protagonist is a former elementary school teacher. In L.A. And he refuses to ride the bus.

Now, with those three clues, I imagine most of us can come up with a TMT that would be wholly generic and uninteresting… and you’d match what happened to the character in the book. It’s weird, because there’s so much build up to it and so much tension around it that the reveal left me feeling cheated. That’s it? The farmboy is really a prince?

But that convention isn’t supposed to be innovative, because the book is serving a different kind of audience. At least, it seems to be. When I open a novel and see that the dialog has no quotes around it–all dialog is a separate paragraph marked with an em-dash at the front–I mark it down as aiming for a literary audience.

And don’t get me wrong; it’s a terrific book. The protagonist started out so contemptuous and unlikeable that I nearly put the book down after the first 20 pages. I’m glad I didn’t have other reading material handy because I got past the nastiness and fell right into the protagonist’s story. The dialog is amazing. The characters are textured and three-dimensional. There’s something of a crime/noirish plot that doesn’t really come off, but that’s not the strong part of the book.

The best parts are the scenes where the characters dig into their families. Dysfunction, emotional abuse, neglect, screwed-up power dynamics… it was all there, and I loved it. If you have a taste for damaged characters trying to be a little less damaged, pick up a copy. It’s powerful stuff. Buy the book at