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The Ethical Assassin: A Novelby David Liss
"All this is great fun, and if Liss is trespassing on Carl Hiaasen's turf, well, who cares? It's a big state. What's more troubling is the heavy-handed moralizing that Liss dishes out in this otherwise comic thriller....Liss is a vegan, and I'm deeply sympathetic to his cause, but while reading The Ethical Assassin, I was struck by what a shaky soapbox a novel makes." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World ( read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
Edgar award-winning author of the popular historical novels A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, David Liss showcases his amazing versatility with this brilliant new tale of contemporary suspense: a literary thriller set in Florida, where killing is a matter of conscience.
No one is more surprised than Lem Altick when it turns out he's actually good at peddling encyclopedias door to door. He hates the predatory world of sales, but he needs the money to pay for college. Then things go horribly wrong. In a sweltering trailer in rural Florida, a couple whom Lem has spent hours pitching is shot dead before his eyes, and the unassuming young man is suddenly pulled into the dark world of conspiracy and murder. Not just murder: assassination — or so claims the killer, the mysterious and strangely charismatic Melford Kean, who has struck without remorse and with remarkable good cheer. But the self-styled ethical assassin hadn't planned on a witness, and so he makes Lem a deal: Stay quiet and there will be no problems. Go to the police and take the fall.
Before Lem can decide, he is drawn against his will into the realm of the assassin, a post-Marxist intellectual with whom he forms an unlikely (and perhaps unwise) friendship. The ethical assassin could be a charming sociopath, eco-activist, or vigilante for social justice. To unravel the mystery and save himself, Lem must descend deep into a bizarre world he never knew existed, where a group of desperate — and genuinely deranged — schemers have hatched a plan that will very likely keep Lem from leaving town alive.
David Liss skillfully interweaves a gallery of eccentric characters with a multilayered plot characterized by its unpredictable twists and turns. The Ethical Assassin is a brilliant, darkly comic novel that will leave readers in suspense until the very last page.
"Liss (A Conspiracy of Paper) recycles familiar conventions — drug dealers, missing money, an innocent hero mixed up with bad guys — but salvages his novel from banality with a few quirky touches. In sticky south Florida of August 1985, Lem Altick, a 17-year-old door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, witnesses the murder of two potential customers in a mobile home. Fearing he'll be fingered for the crime — or worse, that he's next — Lem establishes a wary relationship with the likable killer, Melford Kean, who is either a violent psychopath or an animal rights vigilante fighting agribusiness. Lem must also watch out for Jim Doe, the corrupt, redneck police chief who saw Lem at the trailer on the night of the crimes. Lem's paranoia heightens when he learns of Doe's connection to his employers at the encyclopedia sales company, which turns out to be a front. While Lem repeatedly skitters away from danger as he gathers clues that reveal a web of corruption, he finds time to fall for fellow bookseller Chitra and to undergo a political awakening under Melford's tutelage. Liss provides enough entertainment to keep the pages turning, but this hybrid of a thriller and a coming-of-age story doesn't quite succeed as either." (Mar.) Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"David Liss has a nose for history. He can smell it hundreds of years away. His debut, 'A Conspiracy of Paper,' and its sequel, 'A Spectacle of Corruption,' reeked of gritty 18th-century London. 'The Coffee Trader' captured the scent of unwashed whores along with the best part of waking up in 17th-century Amsterdam. Now, for the first time, Liss has written a contemporary novel, 'The Ethical Assassin,'... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) set in Florida, but his olfactory sense is as acute as ever. 'A putrid miasma whirled and eddied through the streets of the trailer park,' he tells us in the opening paragraph. 'It smelled like a prison camp outhouse. Worse.' Liss' previous novels were entertaining thrillers that also happened to teach us about the development of market economies in Europe. Intricate details about city life, including the smells of crowded streets without plumbing, were just part of the redolent charm of his scholarship. 'The Ethical Assassin' is far less cerebral, but the stench is front and center, and the author is more didactic than ever. The story revolves around two of the nastiest enterprises in the world — pig farming and crystal meth production — but what really has Liss holding his nose is the moral rot of a society that eats meat. His narrator is a charmingly sarcastic 17-year-old named Lem Altick, who survived high school by looking forward to college anywhere but in Florida. But when he got accepted to Columbia, his stepfather reneged on the promise of tuition money, so Lem is selling encyclopedias door-to-door to people who would be better off spending their money on food or propane. 'Let me be absolutely clear about this,' he tells us at the outset. 'Not once, not one single time, no matter how happy I was to make a sale, did I ever do it without the acid tinge of regret. ... but I was good at sales, good at it in a way I'd never been good at anything in my life. Sure, I'd done well in school, on my SATs, that sort of thing. But those were solitary activities, this was public, communal, social. I, Lem Altick, was getting the best of others in a social situation, and let me tell you, that was new, and it was delicious.' We meet Lem in a little speed-trap town that's home to a pig farm. Lem is working on a classic trailer-trash couple named Karen and Bastard. 'It ain't my real name, but it's my real nickname,' Bastard tells him. Lem runs through his shtick ('Would you be happier if your child was learning more?') and wins them over, but just as he reaches for their check, a man opens the door and shoots Karen and Bastard in the head. That's always a deal breaker. This 'ethical' assassin introduces himself as Melford and quickly goes about framing Lem for the double murder, then helping him elude the police chief, who turns out to be a psychotic killer, rapist and drug manufacturer. Zany encounters ensue. A boys' club founder keeps his pedophilia just barely in check. His sexy assistant is a Siamese twin haunted by her dead sister. More bodies pile up. Chapters jump from one cliffhanger to the next. As Lem realizes that the encyclopedia biz is really a front for selling something far more lucrative, gangsters start to close in on him, and the only person he can depend on is Melford, the man who blew away his last two customers. All this is great fun, and if Liss is trespassing on Carl Hiaasen's turf, well, who cares? It's a big state. What's more troubling is the heavy-handed moralizing that Liss dishes out in this otherwise comic thriller. Once he's dispatched Karen and Bastard, Melford spends the rest of the novel patiently leading Lem (and us) to the wisdom of animal rights, with a dose of wide-eyed Marxism. There's a tedious earnestness to these passages, as though we've been trapped by one of those well-meaning volunteers on the street with a clipboard who want to explain why our lives are immoral. Several times, the novel's humor evaporates, even the plot is suspended, and the colloquy begins: 'What about medical research?' 'Shouldn't we have the right to take advantage of our position on the food chain?' 'Is cruelty motivated by capital less evil than other kinds of cruelty?' Liss is a vegan, and I'm deeply sympathetic to his cause, but while reading 'The Ethical Assassin,' I was struck by what a shaky soapbox a novel makes. If he didn't shoot me first, Melford would explain that capitalist ideology has blinded me to the revolutionary possibilities of fiction, but there's no sense in trading off the power of storytelling — particularly as well as Liss can do it — for an ethical debate. Although I'm now determined to swear off buying encyclopedias from door-to-door salesmen, novels less polemical than 'The Ethical Assassin' have brought me closer to Liss' point of view on eating meat. I started using free-range eggs after reading Rob Levandoski's 'Fresh Eggs,' and I gave up pork altogether after Annie Proulx's 'That Old Ace in the Hole.' Fiction should entice, not shove us, toward moral improvement. The key, as Melford knows, is in the execution. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] murderously funny thriller....Imagine David Lynch's bizarre masterpiece Blue Velvet scripted by Edna Buchanan and Carl Hiaasen. It's a blast." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"The jump from financial chicanery in seventeenth-century London to redneck craziness, South Florida style, seems daunting, but Liss sails across the abyss unscathed." Booklist
"Readers will enjoy this wild and highly entertaining ride." Library Journal
"Liss' inventiveness at delivering a totally bizarre and completely believable plot continues to win over the reader....The Ethical Assassin eschews predictability with its edgy, intriguing story." South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"[O]utstanding....The Ethical Assassin is as rewarding and thought provoking as his three previous novels, two set in 18th century London, one in 17th century Amsterdam." Miami Herald
"Liss will have to back up and try again if he wants to join the top ranks as a contemporary fiction writer....Liss is enormously gifted, enough that he should return to contemporary fiction at some point. Next time, though, some subtlety might work better." San Antonio Express-News
"Gripping entertainment from the opening pages — a terrific read with the page-turning energy of a first-rate thriller, but also far more than that. David Liss has written a genre-bender with more than its share of white-knuckle suspense, vivid characters, and surprising humor." Joseph Finder, author of Company Man
"Hypnotic and addictive storytelling." Lee Child, author of One Shot
"Hilarious, poignant, and laced with paranoia, The Ethical Assassin reads like a Hardy Boys mystery on acid. David Liss pulls out all the stops in this Homeric coming-of-age tale. A vibrant and sweaty page-turner, this book explodes with fresh, memorable characters and a soundtrack I'd like to own." Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist and Delicious
From the Edgar Award-winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper comes an engaging and brilliantly constructed thriller set in and around a steamy Florida trailer park during the mid-1980s. In this darkly comic novel, David Liss skillfully interweaves a gallery of eccentric characters with a multilayered plot characterized by its unpredictable twists and turns, leaving readers in suspense until the very last page.
About the Author
David Liss is the author of A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and daughter, and can be reached via his website at www.davidliss.com.
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