An Edgar Allan Poe Award and numerous other prizes to his credit notwithstanding, the mystery writer Thomas H. Cook rarely gets the kind of high-profile attention accorded reigning superstars Michael Connelly and Patricia Cornwell, at least in the United States, a degree of oversight on his home turf that is a mystery unto itself.
The reason may be the prevailing perception that Cook is a genre writer, an unfortunate oversimplification because most of his books are literary hybrids that are anything but formulaic.
One can only hope that the critical reception for the Alabama native's 28th book, "The Crime of Julian Wells" (Mysterious Press: 292 pp., $24), will balance things out somewhat, because it is a striking example of a suspense writer working at the top of his form, and an agreeable diversion for those who enjoy a bit of style with their substance.
The premise itself is an exercise in speculation. Julian Wells, the title character, is an enigmatic sort of person who has made a name for himself as an author of real-life crime, a background that Cook shares in several of his own books, but there the similarity ends. As the novel opens, Julian is tidying up his Montauk, Long Island, study, making sure to leave no telltale signs that might explain why he is about to row a hundred feet out into a nearby pond and slash his wrists before his sister Loretta, a failed actress and part-time copy editor who owns the old family house with him, suspects anything is amiss.
That there might be a crime of any sort is something that Philip Anders, a book reviewer accustomed to a fairly sedentary life, is compelled to investigate, spurred on by the agonizing thought that he might have been able to prevent the suicide, if only he'd had an inkling of the demons that were nudging his dearest friend over the edge. Philip and Julian were brought together in youth by circumstance, both of them the sons of middle-level State Department bureaucrats.
As an author, Julian's books had examined various aspects of what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil," the idea that unspeakable crimes like the Holocaust are often carried out by ordinary people unwilling to question authority or consider the moral consequences of their actions.
There are a couple of hints to begin with, a map of Argentina Julian had been examining on the day he died, and the haunting dedication he had written to his first book: "For Philip, sole witness to my crime." The line had always bothered Philip, because he had no idea what his friend meant by it. And Argentina is especially interesting, since both men had known a woman in Buenos Aires who had inexplicably gone missing during the darkest days of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early '80s.
Philip's travels through three continents bring him in contact with a succession of unsavory people and deeper into a world that walks a fine line between appearance and reality. Cook's characterizations are richly balanced and finely nuanced, with a narrative driven more by psychological insight than pyrotechnics. Literary references abound, perhaps a few too many for some tastes, but always relevant, and none more resonant than a description of the deceased that appears early in the novel: "Like Orpheus, he had brought music into hell, and like him, he had died in a world that no longer wished to hear it."
— Nicholas Basbanes