Friday, May 27, 2011

"The Ethical Assassin"

The Ethical Assassin by David Liss is a suspense novel in which a naive character, 17-year-old Lemul Altick suddenly finds himself threatened by bizarre criminals and corrupt policemen in the heat and misery of 1980s Florida. Lem -- whose name is coincidentally the same as Swift's Lemuel Gulliver -- grows up and learns a great deal in his strange voyage of saving himself from a variety of dangers. He learns to deal with strange circumstances, with dishonest employers in his job selling encyclopedias door-to-door, with bullying from his age peers and others, and with ambiguity about which people he can believe or trust. It's not quite as excellent as some novels in this style (like by Graham Greene) but it's good.

The "ethical assassin" of the title is a stealthy, weird-looking, and mysterious character named Melford who offers long discourses on veganism and saving animals from human cruelty. Melford insists on the ethical imperative of his views; his persuasiveness pulls in Lem and at least one other character. Despite all the discussion of the wrongs of eating meat, food in the sense that I usually write about it hardly plays a role in this book.

Lem, attempting to skip meat thanks to Melford's discourses, dislikes the dairy-free bowl of oatmeal that's his only choice at an IHOP; he eats fruit when his hunger tempts him otherwise, and he also resists temptation from a girl who tries to lure him to eat a hamburger -- but this book is truly not about food in the style of many works of detective fiction. Melford's obsession with the ethics of eating meat plays a large role in the unfolding suspense -- making the discussions relevant without (in my opinion) turning this into a philosophic novel. It would in fact be perverse to read this as a tract about "meat is murder" though some of the reviewers did read it this way. It's about a bizarre character whose quirk is animal rights.

Lem Altick, like the central characters in Liss's other novels, is a Jew. For Lem, being Jewish has no stated religious or ethical content, it's just one of many taunts from the bullies of his school days and his experiences in the narrative. The extent to which Jewishness has no meaning for Lem is a bit extreme. In Liss's other books, which are set in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the key Jewish characters (the ones who have to get themselves out of dangerous and strange situations) are not practicing their religion; they nevertheless are very conscious of its meaning and customs and how it affects the lives of their Jewish relatives. For Lem, it's nothing but another reason to pick on him, like being overweight (which he had been a few years before).

Since the publication of The Ethical Assassin, Liss has returned to publishing historical fiction, and also seems to be collaborating on some graphic novels. I've read the rest of his novels to date, and liked them. I would judge this the weakest though it's a good read. The historical content of the others gives them a greater depth than this one; the variety of really oddball characters in this one doesn't make up for this lack of depth. I'm looking forward to Liss's new historical novel, scheduled to appear in August.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

I'm always curious to hear about new novels and mysteries and if food is involved, all the better! The historical fiction sounds very good, too. Perhaps those first?